This hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through November 30, will be “one of the most active” on record, some of the country’s top weather forecasters are predicting. By the end of May, before the season had begun, there had already been two named tropical storms. And a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study released in May indicates that climate change has been intensifying the strength of hurricanes by about 8 percent per decade over the past 40 years. At the same time, infections and deaths from Covid-19 are projected to last through the summer and into the fall, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and others.
The question now is how well vulnerable localities and the nation as a whole will adjust to this convergence of storms and disease.
True to form, the Trump administration promises it’s ready to “respond and recover from future disasters that may arise during this pandemic.” But hurricane disaster professionals from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to officials in Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana warn that everything they do this year will be slowed down by the continuing spread of Covid-19.
“Every approach we take will have to be looked at through the lens of the Covid crisis,” says Shari Lipner, emergency management administrator for the City of Miami Beach, Fla., which first began tracking the disease in January. “Can hurricane winds carry virus or do something we haven’t predicted? We’re 100 percent in a storm surge evacuation zone,” Lipner said. “We will have to separate our evacuees from public safety professionals, drivers, and shelter operators who will have to have PPE [personal protective equipment]. [We tell the public], ‘Have a plan, build a kit, stay informed,’ only this year hurricane kits will include masks, gloves, and sanitizer.”
“We’re good at surging forces,” says Coast Guard Capt. Mark Gordon, chief of operations for the USCG Atlantic Area. “Before, if it took 72 hours to pre-position materials behind a storm, maybe it will be 92 hours now.” How to evacuate high-risk populations—from nursing homes, for example—and ensure that responders are fully equipped with the necessary PPE are questions they’re preparing to answer.
Extreme weather events that force evacuations and make social distancing difficult if not impossible could become super-spreading events. Having to evacuate Covid patients who are not in storm-hardened locations, such as the Veterans Administration Hospital in New Orleans, will be one of many challenges. Providing transportation and long-term shelter for the sick or infected, supplementing or replacing traditional disaster shelters with hotel and dorm lodgings for infection control, and supplying everyone with PPE will stress over-extended state and local government resources.
Casey Tingles, deputy director of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, worries about public attitudes during the pandemic and resulting economic crisis. “We’re trying to determine if the public may respond differently because of unemployment and loss of income. Will they need [local evacuation] services more, or are they less likely to want to evacuate?” Tingles said. In the event of a superstorm, they’d normally plan to evacuate people by air, but with the question of whether people will be willing to get on planes, they’re now looking at total in-state evacuations.
With resources already strapped, “we can’t sustain this [pace of disaster response],” says Lipner, of Miami Beach. “We have to operate with the expectation FEMA will reimburse us later for the money we’re spending now.”
The first round of emergency funding to address the coronavirus pandemic injected an additional $45 billion into FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, bringing the total to almost $80 billion. But even this extra infusion could get used up by the pandemic, multiple hurricanes, and other extreme weather events.
And there’s an even larger funding issue looming. Because of the pandemic and resulting economic collapse, states and cities are running out of money to pay school teachers, sanitation workers, police, firefighters, public health workers, and disaster response professionals who are now preparing for the 2020 hurricane season. Local governments across the country have already had to lay off over 1.5 million state and municipal workers. Meanwhile, the White House and the Senate Republican leadership have indicated strong opposition to another financial relief package that would enable state and local governments to continue operating until the economy recovers.
The perfect storm approaches.