The First COVID-19 Era Hurricane Season Is Here. Are We Ready?

May 21, 2020 | 11:51 am
public domain
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

Today NOAA announced its 2020 Atlantic hurricane season forecast and projected an above average year, with a likely range of 6-10 hurricanes and 3-6 major hurricanes expected. This year, we also face hurricane season amidst the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and a worsening economic downturn—yet another example of compound risks that are part of our new normal. Our nation’s ability to keep people safe is going to be severely tested, and in large part depends on how well the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state and local authorities work together under these unprecedented circumstances.

The rising toll from hurricanes

My colleague, Astrid Caldas, wrote today about the (many) climate connections with hurricanes. As she noted, “If the past five hurricane seasons have taught us anything, it is that hurricanes are becoming stronger, wetter, slower, and more destructive, and all these trends have been linked to anthropogenic global warming. Hurricanes are also intensifying faster compared to historical records.”

As sea levels rise, storm surges associated with hurricanes are able to reach further inland. Along the US Atlantic and Gulf coastlines, we also have many more people and much more property in harm’s way than in the past.

As a result of all these factors, the impacts of landfalling hurricanes are also likely to be increasingly harmful and costly. What’s more, for people who live in places that are prone to be hit repeatedly by storms, the cumulative impacts can be particularly devastating.

Compound risks from COVID-19 and hurricanes

A recent article from UCS researchers and colleagues at Georgetown University and the University of Cape Town highlighted a range of compound climate risks in the COVID-19 pandemic, including risks from hurricanes in the Atlantic. As we noted in the article:

A concerning body of evidence already indicates that climate hazards, which are increasing in frequency and intensity under climate change, are likely to intersect with the COVID-19 outbreak and public health response. These compound risks will exacerbate and be exacerbated by the unfolding economic crisis and long-standing socioeconomic and racial disparities, both within countries and across regions, in ways that will put specific populations at heightened risk and compromise recovery.

Here in the US, there’s no question that many communities along the East and Gulf coasts will be enmeshed in these compound hazards—with communities of color and low-income communities at heightened risk. Many communities in Texas, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Puerto Rico are still recovering from past hurricanes, including the deadly 2017 and 2018 seasons.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Cyclone Amphan slammed into the coastline of India and Bangladesh, forcing more than three million people to evacuate in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports are still coming in regarding fatalities and damage from the cyclone, which has killed at least 84 people, cut a vast swath of destruction, and severely affected the major city of Kolkata. Nevertheless, early indications are that some of the worst outcomes may have been avoided. That is in no small part due to the extraordinary evacuation efforts both countries mounted to keep people safe from the cyclone: providing advance warning, getting people out of harm’s way and sheltering them as safely as possible under the circumstances. The lessons from this could be instructive for us as we prepare to face our hurricane season.

FEMA is stretched thin

Going into this year’s hurricane season, we know that FEMA—our nation’s lead disaster response agency—is already stretched thin. Other disasters like ongoing Midwest flooding and the upcoming wildfire season also put pressure on the agency’s resources. The agency is currently tasked with coordinating our nation’s COVID-19 response, an ongoing crisis that has led to 57 disaster declarations thus far (in all 50 states, 5 territories and 1 tribe). Over 3,000 of FEMA’s current workforce of approximately 20,000 are deployed to the COVID-19 crisis. As states seek to ease or end shutdowns, there could be new strains on COVID-19 response efforts, including a heightened need for testing, contact tracing, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical equipment, as well vigilance against another wave of infections—all of which could further tax FEMA’s workforce.

Yesterday FEMA issued new COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance for the 2020 Hurricane Season. While FEMA aims to live up to its mission, a key theme repeated throughout the document is captured in this sentence: “Since many aspects of disaster response may be conducted remotely this year, SLTTs (state, local, tribal and territorial officials) should be prepared to coordinate through virtual communications and ensure the public is aware that the FEMA application process may be virtual and not in-person due to health and safety considerations.” While this is understandable, there’s no question it will significantly complicate hurricane preparedness and recovery efforts, especially for communities that are less well-resourced or more isolated. Federal, state and local authorities must do more to make sure that these communities are not left behind, as has often been the case in the past.

The guidance also indicates that the agency is seeking to limit the number of people voluntarily evacuating during disasters like hurricanes. It asks SLLTS to consider “Targeting evacuation orders and communication messages to reduce the number of people voluntarily evacuating from areas outside a declared evacuation area.” While the aim is to take account of COVID-19 risks, this approach could leave some people at risk should forecasts shift and different areas get exposed to the impacts of hurricanes. It could also lead to risky situations where people wait too long to evacuate and then start to flee en masse. It could also leave some people trapped in unsafe conditions, including in the aftermath of storms when communities may be faced with risks such as floodwaters laced with toxics or a lack of electricity. Again, identifying vulnerable populations ahead of time—including low-income communities, those in hospitals and prisons, the elderly and those with preexisting health conditions—and ensuring that there are clear, nimble plans to keep them safe is vital.

Hurricane evacuation and sheltering procedures will need to take account of the need to practice safe social distancing and other preventative measures to limit the risks of a disease outbreak. As CDC guidelines indicate, going to a public disaster shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic will require extra precautions—including wearing face coverings, using hand sanitizer and maintaining a 6-foot distance—to ensure everyone’s health and safety. The Red Cross has also provided information for preparing for disasters like hurricanes during COVID-19. One important thing that everyone in hurricane-prone areas should do is check whether shelter locations have changed due to the pandemic.

As we note in our recent Nature article:

Given that federal disaster response will likely prioritize evacuation and will leave local efforts to contain the resulting surges in COVID-19 cases, issuing formal updates to COVID-19 response guidance for state and local authorities (for example, will be critical.

Meanwhile, many communities are still struggling with the effects of past disasters like Hurricanes Florence, Irma, Maria, Mathew and Michael, and past wildfires in California. FEMA must also continue to support recovery efforts there.

Learning from past experiences

A new GAO report on actions needed to address challenges with FEMA’s disaster workforce highlights FEMA’s struggles with staffing during 20172018, back-to-back years with significant “billion dollar disasters” including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence, Michael, and major wildfires in California According to the GAO report, at the peak of the 2017 disaster season, the agency deployed 14,684 personnel and it deployed 10,328 personnel at the peak of the 2018 season. One major challenge that led to staffing problems was that fatigue from the long chain of back-to-back disasters led to many staff declining deployment requests. Declination rates reached as high as 48 percent for hurricane Maria, which FEMA officials attributed to “the austere conditions in Puerto Rico and fatigue from previous deployments to hurricanes Harvey and Irma.” The agency struggled to meet staffing needs, facing shortages over half its cadres, and relied on a “surge capacity force” (beyond the usual flexibilities of reservists and local hires) brought in from other parts of the Department of Homeland Security, other federal agencies and local areas.

This year is likely to pose a similar scale of challenges, if not greater. Concerns about COVID-19 could cause some staff and reservists to be even more disinclined to be deployed. Adding to the agency’s woes are the fact that several senior staff have recently departed, including deputy administrator Daniel Kaniewski who left in January (His position is still vacant).

To get out ahead of the compound risks this hurricane season, FEMA must start prepositioning emergency supplies and hiring a surge workforce, trained and ready to swing into action when needed. (The GAO report also pointed out bottlenecks in training as a challenge for FEMA.) Administrator Gaynor indicated in a recent interview that FEMA is taking steps to prepare for this unprecedented disaster season, including by setting up “an additional command center — called a “surge” National Response Coordination Center — for staff across the government to handle the non-COVID catastrophes.” While this is encouraging to hear, more details are needed, including a plan of clear communication and resource sharing with state and local authorities as well as how FEMA plans to ensure the safety and well-being of frequently marginalized communities. Past hurricanes and the COVID pandemic only reinforce the unjust reality that African American, Latino, Tribal and low-income communities are often among the most severely affected.

FEMA’s 2019 National Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) included a set of so-called ‘plausible concurrent operations’ where the agency might be tasked with responding to multiple threats or hazards. One such set included a nationwide pandemic coinciding with hurricanes affecting Texas, Florida, Alabama and Hawaii. The pandemic scenario is prescient in many ways; However, the COVID-19 pandemic has already resulted in over 93,000 deaths and over 1.5 million confirmed cases—well in excess of the “hundreds of fatalities and thousands of people seeking medical attention” in the THIRA scenario.  Unfortunately, FEMA had yet to act on incorporating insights from the THIRA exercise into future planning, budgeting and stakeholder engagement when the current pandemic broke out.

The role of Congress

Last month Representative McNerney and Senator Kamala Harris, along with several others, sent a letter to FEMA Administrator Gaynor requesting information on “specific steps the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is taking to ensure that it is adequately prepared to respond to a natural disaster during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.” To address staffing challenges, one potential idea proposed by  Senators Markey (D-Mass) and Van Hollen (D-MD) is a Resilience Force that will “surge employment at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the fight against the coronavirus and natural disasters.”

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 25th 2020, included $45 billion for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, $25 billion of which is to be allocated to major disasters declared under the Stafford Act and $15 billion for all purposes authorized under that act. With the COVID crisis still unfolding, and an above average hurricane season forecast, Congress should stand ready to appropriate more funding for the agency to respond to disasters this year.

A new poll shows, a majority of Americans are worried about harm from extreme events where they live. Policymakers must respond to those concerns, even as they act to address the current COVID-19 and economic crises.

As my colleague Shana Udvardy has written, Congress must do much more to invest in pre-disaster mitigation, which can boost preparedness in communities before disasters strike. Expanding funding for the new Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program and the flood mitigation assistance program; expanding equitable access to flood insurance; and investing in flood mapping that accounts for growing climate risks are vital to better protect communities. BRIC has been set up to implement a provision in the 2018 Disaster Relief and Recovery Act, which allows the President to set aside six percent from the Disaster Relief Fund for pre-disaster mitigation actions. UCS strongly urges Congress to make this six percent set-aside mandatory, and has also just submitted comments to FEMA with recommendations on how to make the BRIC program climate-smart and equitable.

Of course, our nation needs a much more scaled-up investment in climate resilience to address the growing risks of climate change—for example, through a well-funded National Climate Bank or National Climate Resilient Infrastructure Bank. As Congress turns toward legislation to promote economic recovery, equitable investments in low-carbon, climate resilient infrastructure are a smart choice that can create jobs, jump start the economy, improve public health and help protect people.

Intersectional solutions for compound crises

This year feels unprecedented in so many ways. It is also giving us a foretaste of what the future will bring when climate change increasingly collides with other health, social and/or economic crises. To mount an effective response, our solutions must be intersectional, centering the health and well-being of people—including those who have historically been marginalized and discriminated against. We must prepare well in advance, not simply respond when disasters strike. And we must address these challenges on a global scale, with international cooperation and collaboration.