USA Today: A busy hurricane season and the coronavirus pandemic ‘is a cataclysmic scenario’

USA Today: A busy hurricane season and the coronavirus pandemic ‘is a cataclysmic scenario’
Article by Doyle Rice, USA Today
Photo by Ramon Espinosa, AP

Thanks to COVID-19, the hurricane season that officially starts Monday will be unlike any other.

“The combination of an ongoing pandemic and what NOAA has forecast to be a busy hurricane season is a cataclysmic scenario,” according to the disaster policy group SmarterSafer Coalition.

Federal forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last month predicted as many as 19 named storms would form, of which as many as 10 will be hurricanes. It’s just one of many forecasts that predict an unusually busy season in 2020.

“This could be a very active season,” said AccuWeather meteorologist Dan Kottlowski. “The more active the season, the more likely we’ll have at least one, two or three major events.”

Astrid Caldas, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: “The intersection of the pandemic with hurricane season is unprecedented and unfortunate, as it will play out as FEMA’s resources and staff are stretched thin with the pandemic response and a series of disasters since 2017, which will make it harder for the agency to rise to the challenge of simultaneously occurring disasters.”

Even without the pandemic, this “would be a challenging hurricane season,” said Rachel Cleetus, also of the Union of Concerned Scientists, due to the predicted number of storms. “As a nation, we’re not prepared, and this is putting people’s lives at risk.”

The nation’s ability to keep people safe is going to be severely tested, she added, and in large part depends on how well FEMA and state and local authorities work together under these unprecedented circumstances.

“Other disasters like ongoing Midwest flooding and the upcoming wildfire season also put pressure on the agency’s resources,” Cleetus said.

FEMA said it’s ready for hurricane season: “While FEMA continues to lead federal operations during the whole-of-America COVID-19 response, we continue to take deliberate and proactive steps to respond to and recover from future disasters, such as hurricanes, while responding to COVID-19. FEMA has already responded to severe weather during this pandemic, with devastating tornadoes in the southeast, while also preparing for the start of the 2020 hurricane season.”

Nevertheless, the overwhelming fight against COVID-19, paired with already scarce resources, will dramatically impact the ability of federal, state, and local governments to support hurricane disaster relief.

And the threat of contracting COVID-19 will be a deterrent for some people considering to go to a shelter to ride out a hurricane.

“If we have to do mass congregate sheltering, what are the protocols we’re going to have in place?,” Jared Moskowitz, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said in a recent news conference, AccuWeather reported. “Are we going to have COVID-only shelters? How are we going to do evacuations?”

“They’re tired of seeing the numbers. They’re tired of seeing the news media. They’re tired,” Bill Wheeler, deputy emergency management coordinator in Harris County, Texas, told AccuWeather.

FEMA recently released the “COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance for the 2020 Hurricane Season” to help emergency managers and public health officials best prepare for disasters while continuing to respond to and recover from the pandemic.

While FEMA aims to live up to its mission, it noted disaster response may be conducted remotely this year, and that the public should be aware the agency’s application process may not be done 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,” the Union of Concerned Scientists said.

Nursing homes are at particular risk during a hurricane, according to meteorologist Ryan Maue.

“(What’s) very important during hurricane season is to prepare those in elderly housing including nursing homes for potential storm impacts,” he said. “This is just one of many areas where the coronavirus pandemic and hurricane season intersect.”

Cleetus pointed out that hurricane season lasts until Nov. 30, and public health experts are warning of a surge in infections later this year.

“We’re not out of the woods in terms of the public health challenge,” she said.

At the American Red Cross, Trevor Riggen, senior vice president of disaster services, said, “disasters won’t stop during the coronavirus outbreak – so as we head into hurricane season, our goal is to provide anyone in need after a disaster with comfort and support.”

He added that amid the coronavirus crisis, Red Cross will provide some relief services virtually, including mental health support and financial assistance, thanks to investments in items like laptops, wireless hotspots and mobile devices.

“Instead of opening shelters, we’re prioritizing individual hotel rooms or dormitory style rooms to make sure people have a safe place to stay if they can’t return home after a disaster,” Riggen said.

And as bad as it could be in the U.S., nations of the Caribbean may be even more at risk. Erynn Carter, senior director for humanitarian response at Mercy Corps, said the region faces a “nightmare scenario” if a major hurricane hits in the middle of “an uncontained pandemic.”

“Skyrocketing demand for health supplies has stretched supply chains,” Carter said. “Difficulty accessing items like hygiene products and medical supplies will hurt much needed preparations for hurricane response.

“In the event of a major storm, supply chains would almost certainly be further limited by hurricane damage. This will threaten the lives of people who need medical care and equipment to fight COVID-19, and the lives of people with injuries and health crises caused or made worse by a hurricane.”

So far, the hurricane season has gotten off to a fast start. Two named storms have already formed: Tropical Storms Arthur and Bertha.

It’s the first time since 2012 that two storms formed during the month of May.

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