Weather and Natural Disasters

With an active hurricane season on the way, officials prep disaster plans for coronavirus challenges

Key Points
  • With hurricane season approaching, disaster officials are revising their plans on how to safely respond to a catastrophe.
  • The Red Cross, along with state and local governments, are first turning to hotels to house displaced residents over mass shelters.  
  • Evacuees entering shelters will have their temperatures checked and given personal protective equipment as part of new protocols. 
People take shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center after flood waters from Hurricane Harvey inundated the city on August 29, 2017 in Houston, Texas.
Getty Images

Disaster officials in the midst of responding to the coronavirus pandemic now have another potential crisis to worry about: hurricane season.

The National Hurricane Center predicted Thursday that it will be an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season, with between 13 and 19 named storms. Forecasters said three to six major hurricanes with winds of more than 111 miles per hour could form during the season, which officially begins on June 1.  

The Atlantic has already produced Tropical Storm Arthur, which brushed the Carolinas before heading off to sea earlier this week. It could be just a glimpse of what's ahead.

The last two years have seen an above-normal number of named storms with 18 in 2019 and 15 in 2018. 

This year, the Covid-19 crisis is complicating the job for emergency management officials who say they've had to revise their playbooks, step up their disaster preparations and reconfigure response plans in an effort to keep their teams and residents safe while still providing basic needs during a catastrophe.

When Hurricane Harvey slammed the coast of Texas in 2017, nearly 10,000 people took shelter in the city's convention center for more than two weeks. Originally intended to house half that number, displaced residents slept shoulder to shoulder on cots, shared temporary shower facilities and sorted through piles of donated clothes.

That scenario seems implausible, if not impossible, given the current pandemic.

People take shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center after flood waters from Hurricane Harvey inundated the city on August 29, 2017 in Houston, Texas.
Getty Images

Mass shelters may be out of the question, but the reality is many will still need a safe place to stay when disaster strikes.

On Tuesday, Michigan's Governor Gretchen Whitmer, ordered 10,000 residents in Edenville and Sanford to evacuate after heavy rain caused a pair of dams to fail. Local schools and a family center were turned into evacuation centers but those entering underwent a health screening and beds were kept 6 feet apart.  

The American Red Cross, who is handling the response to the deadliest tornado season since 2012, has placed more than 23,000 people in hotels since mid-February.

But one powerful hurricane could easily dwarf those numbers and depending on where it hits, a hotel may not be nearby or currently open because of the pandemic, explained Trevor Riggen, senior vice president for disaster cycle services for the American Red Cross.

"How do we care for what could be tens of thousands of people in need of a major evacuation in a major hurricane?" he said. "We know we're going to have to open a shelter at some point, and so we've been working to adjust our protocol to make sure we can open safe shelters."

That protocol will include taking temperatures and checking symptoms when people enter and isolating those potentially sick in a separate area of the shelter. The organization has been stocking up on sanitation supplies, masks and gloves, and ensuring qualified staff or volunteers will be on hand to manage the special challenges presented by Covid-19. To date, there have been more than 1.5 million cases in the U.S. and at least 93,439 people have died from the virus, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Cheryl Thomas, a nurse for the American Red Cross, checks the temperature of Cheryl Frautschi, as part of Covid-19 screening protocol at a hotel where the Red Cross is providing emergency lodging for families whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the powerful tornado that hit Onalaska, TX on April 22, 2020.
Photo by Scott Dalton | American Red Cross

The second big challenge is staging and recovery after disaster strikes.

"You're going to have staging of assets to repair critical infrastructure compromised because the workers are going to be vulnerable," said Tom Panuzio, who served as a special assistant to the Federal Emergency Management Association director during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

"Deployment of the National Guard is key, but how do you put 5,000 troops in a disaster zone? Once you stage those individuals, where are they going to stay?" said Panuzio, who founded GovCon Funding, which provides capital to contractors responding to disasters.

AT&T described the spring tornadoes as a dress-rehearsal for its disaster response amid a pandemic, which required adapting how to assess damage to broadband, cellular and wireless infrastructure.

How do we care for what could be tens of thousands of people in need of a major evacuation in a major hurricane?
Trevor Riggen
Senior vice president, disaster cycle services for the American Red Cross

Chris Sambar, executive vice president of technology operations, said the coronavirus outbreak has altered the way the communications company will respond. "We used to go in pairs of two. It's a lot more efficient, one person's driving, one person's taking notes and you keep moving. You could do the assessments very quickly," he said.

"With Covid, not anymore. We're going to do one person in a vehicle, and the vehicles need to be cleaned every day," he said.

Often in disaster response, utility crews find themselves bunking in make-do situations – in the back of semi-trailers or in the cabs of trucks. When hotel rooms are available, crews frequently have a roommate. According to Sambar, that's unlikely now. He added, the company is already working with FEMA and state agencies to ensure accommodations.

AT&T deploys a mobile cell tower truck following a natural disaster.
Source: AT&T

Jared Moskowitz, director of Florida's emergency management division, said he's monitoring the cash flow of cities and counties in his state to make sure they have pre-event contracts in place and can pay for those services. 

"I am worried about the financial resources that cities and counties have in order to lay that money out to respond to pay those vendors," Moskowitz said.

That's a concern independent contractors share. FEMA, state agencies, utilities, communications companies and others rely on armies of subcontractors to respond in areas hard-hit by severe weather. But the coronavirus closures may undermine the liquidity and cash flow of those smaller companies, calling into question their ability to ramp up to respond.

"The response will require companies that will have laid-off workers," said Panuzio. Subcontractors will need more careful vetting to assess their manpower and financials, ahead of a crisis, he added.

In every event, personal protective equipment, or PPE, will be in high-demand for command centers, evacuation shelters and staging areas to deploy equipment and assets. 

Emergency officials in Florida have been working to build a reserve of masks and other equipment to prepare for hurricane season while also supplying front-line workers currently fighting the pandemic.   

"We have millions of face shields and gloves in the warehouse ready to go," said Moskowitz.

The department will also be using an app to track whether evacuees have brought their own supplies to shelters so it knows where PPE is needed, he added.

The preparation, response and recovery will also be challenged by skyrocketing unemployment, which means that some families will be less likely to have the resources to stock up on items like bottled water and batteries or travel away from home to evacuate ahead of a storm. This will make cross-border, cross-agency partnerships even more crucial, said Riggen.

"This really will cause us to have to work as one team. This hurricane season cannot be just a collection of agencies serving independently. It really needs to be one, one team of responders working to solve a very difficult set of challenges," he said.