COVID-19 Highlights the Need to Plan for Joint Disasters

May 22, 2020

By Renee Cho

Hurricane Harvey. Photo: FL Fish and Wildlife

The COVID-19 lockdown in the U.S. began at a time of relatively mild weather and very few natural disasters, so for the past few months, the country has been able to focus mainly on the pandemic. But this week, two dams in Michigan failed after heavy rains and flooding, forcing 11,000 people to evacuate while trying to social distance. The floodwaters also threatened the Dow Chemical plant and two hazardous Superfund waste sites, which could have precipitated an environmental disaster. In India and Bangladesh, the most powerful cyclone in more than a decade forced over three million people to evacuate as relief teams tried to protect them against infection from COVID-19.

June 1 is the official start of hurricane season in the U.S., and scientists are predicting a particularly active season, including more major hurricanes. We have also entered the time of year when floods, heat waves, and wildfires occur more often. Over the longer term, climate change is causing more frequent extreme weather events. Rising temperatures also exacerbate the spread of disease and could make pandemics more difficult to control in the future. Considering that most risk studies in the past have been focused on single events, is the U.S. prepared to deal with the possibility of extreme weather events as well as a pandemic?

“…We are in a world in which global challenges are more and more integrated, and the responses are more and more fragmented, and if this is not reversed, it’s a recipe for disaster,” said Antonio Guterres, the U.N. Secretary-General, during a speech in January 2019.

Earth Institute scientists are already investigating these interconnected disasters. In May 2019, long before COVID-19, Radley Horton, associate research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Colin Raymond, a former graduate student in earth and environmental sciences at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, now a postdoctoral researcher at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, co-organized a workshop on correlated extreme events. The workshop brought together scientists, policy experts, and representatives from government and business to examine the increasing incidence of multiple impacts that affect a locale simultaneously or sequentially. They discussed how these risks are changing with climate change and posed a challenge to planners to consider climate change and the potential for correlated extreme events as they think about long-term adaptation.

The aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Photo: South Atlantic Division of USACE

A prime example of correlated extremes is Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which resulted in 3,000 deaths and almost $100 billion of damage caused by high winds and heavy precipitation. The devastation was made worse by inadequate relief and recovery efforts because emergency response systems had already been stretched to their limit by Hurricane Irma striking Florida a week earlier, and Hurricane Harvey hitting Texas the month before. The island was still rebuilding this January when it was hit by an earthquake, and then came COVID-19.

More cascading crises like Puerto Rico’s are liable to hit mainland U.S., too. Hurricanes can lead to storm surges and coastal flooding. Extreme heat worsens drought and makes dust bowls and wildfires more likely; the barren land that remains after a fire is more susceptible to mudslides. And extreme precipitation often produces flooding. How do we respond to potential joint disasters while we are still struggling to contain COVID-19 and maintain social distance?

Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, said that many local emergency managers are very aware of the risk of a hurricane or mass sheltering situation during this time of COVID-19. “I’ve seen a lot of the federal agencies of FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] saying they’re ready, but I don’t know what that means,” he said. “Being ready and willing is one thing, but actually having the resources at your disposal is another. And I think, nationally, it’s a huge mistake to open things up so early on because it’s just going to make it that much harder to respond to these dual disasters which are going to happen on some scale. The only question is how big of a scale and how frequently the hurricane season, the wildfire season and the flooding season contribute to these kinds of complex systems of disasters?”

COVID-19 has already had an impact on preparation for natural disasters.

Hurricanes

Numerous research groups are predicting more hurricanes than normal this season as well as an increase in major hurricanes, Category 3 and stronger, because of warm sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and cooling waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Hurricane season officially ends on November 30, but some health experts warn that we could see a second wave of COVID-19 before then.

Because of COVID-19, emergency management professionals at the Pacific Disaster Center in Hawaii have had to move resources to manage the virus that they would normally have used to get ready for the hurricane season. To reduce the risk of infection, they have cancelled some of their usual preparation activities, such as training wildfire fighters, and have been unable to do public outreach to hurricane-prone areas.

Hurricane Katrina survivors shelter in the Houston Astrodome. Photo: FEMA Andrea Booher

Emergency managers trying to deal with the pandemic as well as natural disasters face unprecedented challenges. Evacuating people into shelters like school gyms or sporting arenas where they have sustained contact with others could spread the virus. Some officials are considering providing more spacing between beds in shelters, which could necessitate finding more facilities. They will also probably have to provide gloves, masks and hand sanitizer for evacuees. Planning is tricky, however, because they can’t predict how many more or less people than usual will go to shelters. The reluctance to stay with family for fear of infecting them might drive more people to shelters, whereas the fear of being infected in close quarters with strangers might mean people will remain home. Moreover, because COVID-19 will likely require adopting new protocols to guide the public in case of a natural disaster, presenting consistent and clear information as soon as possible is an added challenge.

Volunteers donate goods after Hurricane Maria. Photo: Ruben Diaz Jr.

Disaster relief often depends on volunteers—for example, more than 90 percent of Red Cross workers are volunteers. But volunteers may be less willing to help in recovery than usual because traveling to another community could increase their risk of exposure to the virus. On the other hand, hurricane victims in a virus-free community may not even welcome the help of strangers from the outside. And with COVID-19 hitting all communities simultaneously, will there be enough workers from one region to go into another to help restore power and rebuild? The speed of a response helps determine the cost of recovery, but what happens if utility workers and contractors are quarantined and unable to work?

In Florida, emergency management officials are rethinking evacuation and shelters, and looking into giving people in newer houses with up-to-date codes the option to stay home, sorting people by temperature into different shelters, and using hotels; they are also stockpiling 10 million masks. Some coastal states, like New Jersey, are also planning to rent hotel rooms to use.

Heat waves

In early May, heat records had already been broken in Sacramento, CA; Galveston, TX; Salt Lake City, UT, and Fort Myers, FL. A new study — authored by Colin Raymond, Radley Horton, and Tom Matthews from the U.K.’s Loughborough University — found that examples of extreme heat and humidity are already occurring around the world and in the U.S. around the Gulf Coast in east Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. These conditions could surpass the upper limit for human survivability.

NYC cooling center. Photo: Tdorante10

Normally during heat waves, large cooling centers are opened in libraries or other public buildings to enable people without air conditioning to cool off, but the need for social distancing makes this difficult. There are already over 600 heat-related deaths in the U.S. each year. What happens during a heat wave when people who have no air conditioning must stay at home? More needs to be done to provide air conditioning for people who lack it and additional funds so that people need not choose between running air conditioning and paying for other necessities.

New York City is creating a $55 million program to provide over 74,000 air conditioners to low-income seniors who have no air conditioning at home. The nonprofit WE ACT for Environmental Justice in Harlem and others are advocating for ways to cool homes by retrofitting them with white roofs, roof gardens or better insulation. Richmond, VA is looking to turn some streets far from parks into social spaces in the evening; and Austin, TX is considering the use of air-conditioned city buses as cooling shelters in certain neighborhoods.

Wildfires

In several counties of Florida’s Panhandle, recent wildfires forced hundreds of people to evacuate. Many were placed in hotels because of the fear of infection in large shelters. And in California, firefighters continue to clear brush around homes, but are not doing prescribed burns in populated areas because the particulate matter from smoke could increase susceptibility to respiratory diseases like COVID-19. In any case, smoke from wildfires will worsen air quality, which could threaten the health of the elderly or chronically ill, making them more vulnerable to respiratory and heat-related illnesses and to COVID-19.

Last year’s wildfires in California also resulted in imposed blackouts to prevent fires from spreading. But if electricity is cut off, how will people work or attend school remotely, or shop for groceries?

Will there be enough firefighters? Photo: Daria Devyatkina

The National Interagency Fire Center is predicting above-normal fire activity in Central and Northern California and Oregon this year. But because across the country an estimated 10 percent of fire fighting and first responder departments will not be able to help due to COVID-19, there may be fewer firefighters who can respond. And the firefighting teams that do respond could be crammed into vehicles to travel to fires where they live in temporary camps and be at increased risk of infection.

Flooding

NOAA has predicted above average precipitation this season in the central and eastern U.S., and moderate to major flooding in 23 states from the northern Plains to the Gulf Coast.

The Clarksville wall in 2013. Photo: MO National Guard

To prepare for flooding from the Mississippi River, Clarksville, MO officials usually build an eight-foot rock wall covered with sand bags in cooperation with FEMA, emergency response teams, and volunteers from around the country. Because of the need to social distance, it wasn’t possible to bring that many people together, so the wall has not been built this year.

Helena, AR experienced severe thunderstorms and a tornado on Easter weekend. Six thousand homes lost power and streets were flooded. Then the town discovered its first COVID-19 case. Social distancing was impossible, however, when people needed help during the emergency, and those who had stockpiled food to quarantine lost it when the power went out.

FEMA

FEMA’s mission is to help people before, during and after a disaster strikes, relocating victims from the disaster to safety, then overseeing rebuilding efforts. But COVID-19 was the first crisis the agency has ever had to deal with that occurred in 50 states simultaneously. The virus has impacted FEMA’s emergency response preparation and training—hurricane conferences have been canceled and several training facilities have been closed.

FEMA rescue teams after Hurricane Ike. Photo: FEMA Jocelyn Augustino

The agency, which recently released guidelines for state and local governments and tribal officials on how to handle hurricane season alongside the pandemic, claims it is prepared to deal with natural disasters as it manages COVID-19. Some experts are skeptical, however, as FEMA was designed to respond to crises, not forestall them. Judith Enck, EPA’s regional administrator during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, said that FEMA’s tactic in a disaster is to swoop into a crisis region without much understanding of the local context and rapidly hire temporary employees to help. Because of COVID-19, there may not be enough available.

FEMA received $45 billion for disaster relief when Congress approved emergency funding in March, however. This will enable the agency to help city and state governments whose budgets are under enormous pressure from falling tax revenues, unprecedented unemployment rates and health care costs.

Preparing for connected extreme events

As the climate warms, we are likely to see an increasing number of compounded hazards of extreme weather, pandemics, and perhaps other threats such as terrorism or cyber attacks. These crises may affect all sectors of society including our health, food and water, infrastructure, and financial institutions.

To prepare for these challenges, many experts agree that we need to make our communities and our country more resilient. A key component of this is “administrative preparedness” — in other words, a clear playbook not subject to politics to guide the rules of coordination for dealing with a crisis. And as has become obvious in this pandemic, we need to invest in healthcare infrastructure and information technology.

People lining up for shelter in advance of Hurricane Katrina. Photo: FEMA Marty Bahamonde

Disaster financing should be strengthened, making tools like disaster funds and credit lines easier to access; and governments need to have more effective systems for transferring resources to communities and individuals in need. In addition, communication about risks must be improved so that communities know exactly what people in various situations need to do in case of a joint disaster.

Raymond said that an ideal effective response to linked extreme events would be characterized by a “seamless transfer of knowledge and resources”—emergency responders, money, knowledge—between different entities and different scales of government. Right now, the transfer of resources and money between them is difficult because of bureaucratic red tape, so that by the time people realize something is needed, it’s already too late to have a response as effective or efficient as it could be. “It’s hard to think of anything more important than having knowledge flowing from the local small scale to the overarching national or international scale, and then the resources flowing and being distributed at that larger scale back down,” said Raymond.

He cited the Red Cross as an example of an organization that does this well. “They’re able to do it because they are one entity that can move things around,” he said. “They have a system to predict famine in East Africa based on temperature and precipitation combined with, for example, locust infestation information. And they have these models that project the likelihood of famine in different areas so they can then pre-position resources based on those projections. That’s an example of how things could be if we had better governance, more responsive government governance, and also better projected predictions.”

Schlegelmilch’s new book, Rethinking Readiness, examines the most critical threats facing the world today— pandemics, climate change, infrastructure collapse, cyberattacks, and nuclear conflict—and discusses potential solutions.

Air National Guard emergency management technicians. Photo: Christopher S. Muncy

“The role of the 21st century emergency manager is no longer to manage the relationships and the logistics,” he said, “but to actually try and harmonize the different expertise and scope of responsibility that all these different agencies and entities within a community have, and to do so in a way that’s not just during the response to the recovery, but well in advance of the disaster.”

Because we will never have enough information about the future to be certain that our decisions are the right ones, “What we need are better systems for managing uncertainty and making decisions within uncertainty,” said Schlegelmilch. “We need to integrate uncertainty into the way we do business—creating options to be available as more information becomes available.” He added that the Department of Defense and the stock market use methods for working with uncertainty that could be adopted to address connected extreme events.

Climate change is a major source of uncertainty. “As long as the climate is changing, we’re always going to be a little bit behind,” said Raymond. “We won’t be seriously considering the possibilities of certain types of event combinations until they happen. And they’re going to happen in ways that we’re not prepared for if we base our preparations just on the past 30 years or 50 years. So it’s important to have climate information as part of the decision-making structure, because without climate models, or at least climate expert judgment, it’d be very hard for an emergency manager to dream up the kind of combined extreme events that could occur. And that kind of thing is actually becoming more common.”

Media Inquiries: 
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