This Disaster Season, ‘Everything Is Complicated by COVID-19’

This Disaster Season, ‘Everything Is Complicated by COVID-19’
Stateline May28
Volunteers assist evacuated residents at a temporary shelter this month after floodwaters displaced about 10,000 residents near Midland, Michigan. Beds were placed 6 feet apart, but officials say it’s complicated to deal with a natural disaster amid a pandemic.
Carlos Osorio/The Associated Press

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If a hurricane bears down on Florida this summer, residents likely won’t be told to evacuate to the safety of a high school gymnasium or large civic building. Instead, they may be asked to download an app that assigns them to an open hotel room — a shelter from both the storm and the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak.

State officials have mapped out all of Florida’s 5,000 hotels, along with the wind rating of each facility and whether it has a generator on hand. So far, they’ve persuaded 200 hotels to sign up to serve as shelters; they’re aiming to reach 1,000. 

Meanwhile, the state plans to work with local restaurants and commercial kitchens to help supply packaged meals for evacuees, a shift from the buffet-style feeding operations typical of a disaster response. 

Across the country, as summer brings extreme weather to much of the United States, emergency planners are preparing for hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters amid the ongoing pandemic. The novel coronavirus has upended nearly every plan in the disaster response playbook.

“Everything, everything, everything is complicated by COVID-19,” said Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

By June 1, the official start of hurricane season, Moskowitz’s agency will have stockpiled 10 million masks, 1 million face shields and 5 million gloves. Those supplies will be held in reserve, to limit the exposure of first responders and evacuees in a disaster scenario. Displaced residents who arrive at a shelter may immediately be given a kit with personal protective equipment. Evacuations will look different as well. 

“If people need to evacuate, the state will provide resources to folks who cannot afford to do so,” Moskowitz said. “In the past it was buses, now it might be Uber or fuel cards.”

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Disaster Amid Disaster

“This year will be, no question, one of the most challenging that we've faced,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services. “This is about as complex a series of challenges as you could face, and all have cascading impacts.” 

In recent years, California has been besieged by record-setting wildfires, a severe drought — and the ever-present threat of earthquakes. State officials try to be prepared for two major disasters and one moderate disaster at any given time, Ghilarducci said. As wildfire season approaches, they’re already dealing with a public health crisis — and unlike other disasters, its impact is being felt statewide.

Disaster planners say they’re most concerned about their ability to provide mass care. Evacuating scores of residents on crowded buses will no longer be feasible. Cramming families into a stadium or civic center for shelter conflicts with public health guidelines. As does feeding them in a communal operation.

"The shelters are a huge challenge, and we don't have a definitive answer on that."

Hiro Toiya, director Honolulu Department of Emergency Management

And those who volunteer to carry out the response efforts are disproportionately older people. Officials won’t be counting on them to help while the virus remains a threat.

Instead of carrying out large-scale relief operations, states may find themselves coordinating an ad hoc, patchwork system of existing local resources. Hotels — which are now largely empty of tourists — are anticipated to be one part of the solution. College dormitories may be used as well. Local restaurants may be pressed into service.

Craig Fugate, who led the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Barack Obama, said that approach has the added benefit of putting money into the hands of hotels and restaurants that have been empty since the pandemic started.

“We ought to be putting them back to work,” Fugate said. “In a disaster, any opportunity we have to engage the local workforce helps them to survive the disaster.”

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Multiple state officials interviewed by Stateline said they expect hotels that shelter evacuees and restaurants that provide meals would be reimbursed with state and federal relief dollars.

During the pandemic, California has secured 16,000 hotel rooms to shelter its homeless population, frontline workers, released prisoners and residents under quarantine.

About 8,000 of the rooms are occupied now, and the remainder could house evacuees in the wake of a wildfire or earthquake. However, that would require displaced residents to disperse far across the state to reach the available rooms.

Meanwhile, the state is working to distribute 1.5 million meals a week to Californians who are struggling financially because of the pandemic — a program that Ghilarducci said can be extended and broadened to help in a disaster. 

In Hawaii, emergency planners typically design shelter capacity to provide each occupant about 10 square feet of space. To maintain social distancing, officials now believe they’ll have to increase that to 100 square feet. 

“The shelters are a huge challenge, and we don't have a definitive answer on that,” said Hiro Toiya, director of the Honolulu Department of Emergency Management. 

Toiya’s agency plans to work with hospitality industry groups to assess the availability and resilience of local hotels as hurricane season approaches. As in many other states, officials are planning to screen evacuees as they enter shelters and offer alternate sites to those suspected of having COVID-19 or members of vulnerable populations. 

Karl Kim, executive director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center at the University of Hawaii, said hotels could be a huge asset in the wake of a disaster. 

“It's easier to maintain social distance in a hotel structure than a gymnasium,” he said. “Because of the decline in tourism, there is this surplus of capacity that's available.”

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“We either invest … now or we pay a lot more down the line.”

In places where some group sheltering is inevitable, local leaders may have to get creative.

“The current guidance is opening up more shelters but running them for shorter periods of time in smaller numbers to minimize exposure,” Fugate said.

In Louisiana, parishes often have reciprocal agreements to provide shelter if residents of another parish need to evacuate during a hurricane or flood. But instead of simply opening their civic center, parishes may need to add multiple school and church gymnasiums to the mix to help maintain distancing. The state may need to supply extra buses to combat overcrowding of local transportation options.

Because much of the state is prone to flooding, it’s unclear which hotels in which locations would be able to offer help. But multistory hotels in New Orleans may be able to at least provide shelter in their upper floors. Louisiana has a stockpile of meals ready-to-eat — MREs — available to distribute, but it would be a challenge to get them to residents dispersed among hundreds or thousands of hotel rooms.

State officials across the country also acknowledged that the neighboring states they often rely on for aid may not be able to supply as much help as they continue to deal with the virus. But planners universally praised the Federal Emergency Management Agency, saying they anticipate plenty of help from the agency, even as President Donald Trump has feuded with some governors and threatened funding for their states. 

Plans vs. Reality

Amid all the preparation, officials fear that residents may not heed evacuation warnings if they fear the pandemic more.

“You can have the best plans in the world, but if the public isn't listening to information from local officials, your plans won't work,” said Mike Steele, communications director for the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “We're trying to figure out the best way to message to the public that just because you have COVID-19 concerns doesn't mean that storm surge won't be just as dangerous this year.”

Responders faced an early test in Michigan last week, when flooding and dam failures displaced 10,000 residents in Midland. At shelter facilities, masks were given to all arrivals, and beds were 6 feet apart and frequently sanitized. Alternate arrangements were made for evacuees with COVID-19 symptoms. 

“Our message with normal COVID response is to discourage public gatherings and whatnot,” Midland County Public Health Director Fred Yanoski told the Detroit Free Press. “And in this particular situation, it is unavoidable as we’ve had to move several thousand people into a handful of sheltering facilities.”

Evacuees aren’t the only concern. In states prone to wildfires, officials are rethinking the way firefighters assemble to battle blazes. This summer, they won’t be gathering in large camps and eating communal meals. They’ll divide into smaller units, some briefings will be held online, and some firefighters may sleep in nearby hotels. Transportation to and from fire lines is another concern. 

“How do you deal with COVID-19 and a major fire season simultaneously? That's what got us sweating,” said Robert Ezelle, director of the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division. “If the disease continues its current course, we're probably OK for the majority of fire season. If there's a second wave at the same time we're fighting a major fire season, that's where things are going to get very challenging.”

States also are concerned about the ability of overtaxed health care systems to perform in a disaster. Medical professionals have been dealing not only with the pandemic, but with furloughs and cutbacks in many hospital systems. The California Health Corps has recruited 70,000 volunteers to help battle COVID-19, and even then resources are limited.

“This year we're not going to be able to get as many assets out the door in the long term because of their efforts working back home due to COVID,” Ghilarducci said. “An earthquake right now — it could be a big challenge for everybody.”

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Local and state public health officials wield extraordinary powers in emergency situations such as the current coronavirus outbreak. They can close schools and private businesses. They can restrict or shut down mass transit systems. They can cancel concerts, sporting events and political rallies. They can call up the National Guard. They can suspend medical licensing laws and protect doctors from liability claims. And they can quarantine or isolate people who might infect others.