“If a hurricane like Harvey hit again in the middle of pandemic, you’ve got kids maybe going back to school and you’ve got flu season…from a public health standpoint, it’s an absolute nightmare,” said Carrie Kroll, vice president of advocacy, quality and public health at the Texas Hospital Association.
States and cities have never had to respond to a large-scale natural disaster during a global pandemic. The usual support network from neighboring states is frayed because nearly everyone is trying to contain Covid-19. And with FEMA and the National Guard already consumed with supporting the public health response, strapped local officials are improvising as fast as they can.
“The biggest thing right now, especially for the rural areas, is they are short staffed,” said Troy Armstrong, the emergency management director for Johnson County, Missouri. “Those people are already stretched to the limit.”
Hurricane season officially begins Monday and forecasters from Colorado State University are predicting a higher than normal probability that Florida is hit with at least one major hurricane. There already is historic flooding in Michigan and Illinois, and fires burned tens of thousands of acres this month in Arizona and Colorado.
FEMA Director Peter Gaynor on Thursday told President Donald Trump that his agency has already faced a “historic” run of disasters this year while assuring the president that it’s ready to answer the call.
But it doesn’t take much imagination to see how natural disasters could collide with the public health crisis. Local volunteers — often the bedrock of search, rescue and recovery efforts — may be disinclined to help, particularly if they or someone they live with are more susceptible to the virus. Sheltering in stadiums or high school gyms could create hot spots — and there isn’t time or resources to test everyone before they’re placed in an evacuation site. Coronavirus has also exposed the fragility of the nation’s food and transportation networks, which could become bollixed if a hurricane barrels up the east coast and disrupts shipping and trucking.
Emergency preparedness experts also worry about the lack of a coordinated message on how to safely evacuate during a pandemic that could leave the public fearful of leaving their homes.
“We are worried about people hesitating,” said Trevor Riggen, senior vice president of disaster services for the American Red Cross. “The anxiety around the pandemic itself will cause people to hesitate to evacuate. We want people to know shelters are as safe as they can be.”
Florida’s Division of Emergency Management is trying to get the word out. Before Covid-19, the state encouraged residents to evacuate areas in the path of less powerful storms. Now, it wants them to consider sheltering at home.
“We’d always say know your zone, as in know when you need to evacuate,” said Director Jared Moskowitz. “Now we’re saying know your home.”
The state has asked FEMA to pre-approve a plan to allow the medically frail to shelter at hotels rather than storm-resistant school gyms where a communal setting could serve as a breeding ground for the coronavirus.
FEMA last week released guidance for states and local governments on hurricane response during a pandemic, including a checklist for officials and individuals preparing for a disaster. Included were recommendations on how to communicate to the public about a hurricane and how to prepare for supply chain disruptions that could hinder efforts to get protective gear and testing supplies needed to curb the spread of the virus.
A FEMA spokesperson said the agency has replenished food and other emergency supplies in its distribution centers across the country and has more than 3,100 employees working on coronavirus response efforts nationwide with more workers available as needed to respond to emergencies.
Public health experts, critical of the administration’s response to the pandemic, are less confident.
“The reality is that the U.S. has been far less prepared for disasters than most people imagined,” said Irwin Redlener, an expert in disaster preparedness and public health at Columbia University. “It’s extraordinary to me that we’ve had such incompetence in general and the federal government still doesn’t get it, and is ignoring, or just doesn’t understand, the role it plays and that leaves the states in a lurch.”
The Trump administration has drawn criticism for its handling of natural disasters prior to the pandemic. The Government Accountability Office in May released a report on the response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, saying the federal health agency responsible for disaster preparedness and FEMA did not communicate efficiently, leaving critical gaps in the response efforts, including how they were evacuating people and utilizing supplies.
“Our agencies are nowhere near as cooperative as people might think,” Redlener said. “There has been chronic inappropriate competition between agencies.”
Local officials also worry that they likely won’t be able to turn to neighboring counties and states the way they normally do because everyone is dealing with their own emergency this summer — and it may not be safe to move crews of responders from point to point.
“The demands from the pandemic have already limited the number of resources available from outside jurisdictions and that’s the backbone of fire response in Colorado,” said Caley Fisher, spokesperson for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
In Saline County, which has the most coronavirus cases per capita in Missouri, Tony Day, the emergency management director who doubles as the fire chief, said he fears the state Emergency Management agency is overtaxed.
“There is no way they can help everyone,” he said.
Day has worked nearly non-stop for eight weeks and exhaustion is another concern for local officials, worried that their hardest days are still ahead.
“Every frontline worker is exhausted,” said Texas Hospital Association’s Kroll. “To think we’d have to push a lot of resources into one area is daunting.”
Few officials have had the opportunity to practice these new plans or guidelines even with disaster season looming.
“Most of the time those exercises would be taking place right now,” Dan Kaniewski, a former deputy administrator at FEMA during the Trump administration. “They haven’t had that luxury because they’ve been busy responding to coronavirus.”
Kaniewski, now a managing director at Marsh & McLennan, said the combination of coronavirus and a natural disaster is an enormous challenge for local officials that “could stretch their capabilities.”
He believes FEMA needs to shift its focus to hurricanes and other natural disasters while Trump’s health department take the lead on coronavirus, so that local and state officials are not caught off guard in the coming months.