While much of the nation’s attention has been focused almost exclusively on the COVID-19 pandemic, emergency managers across the country have been responding to the public health crisis while at the same time preparing for the next public emergency. In many parts of the United States, that incident will likely be a hurricane.
As if hurricane season wasn’t tough enough on its own, emergency managers must now grapple with responding to a major weather event while also trying to prevent the spread of a dangerous — and often deadly — virus in their communities.
In an ideal world, hurricane season would hold off until the virus crisis has subsided. But weather has a mind of its own. Emergency managers must dig deep into their training and expertise to manage multiple emergencies at once this year.
Hurricane season outlook
Though it’s only July, this year’s Atlantic hurricane season is already making history. Case in point: Edouard, a tropical storm that formed over open waters of the Atlantic in early July, is already the fifth named storm of 2020, the earliest such storm on record. Typically, the fifth named storm does not form until the tail end of August, which means the season is roughly two months ahead of the average schedule.
Looking ahead, forecasters are also expecting an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season, which typically spans June 1 to Nov. 30. Experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are anticipating between 13 and 19 named storms, which could include six to 10 hurricanes. Of those, they predict there could be three to six major hurricanes this season. (For reference, hurricane seasons typically average about 12 named storms and three major hurricanes).
The reasons behind this projected uptick in storms? There likely won’t be an El Nino to thwart hurricane conditions this year, and both the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea are experiencing hotter-then-normal temperatures. Other factors, including an enhanced west African monsoon, reduced vertical wind shear and weather tropical Atlantic trade winds, are also playing a role this year, according to NOAA.
In other regions, NOAA forecasters are also offering forecasts for the upcoming season. Experts predict the central Pacific and eastern Pacific hurricane seasons will be at or below normal.
For individuals and families, even those who have years of experience with tropical storms and hurricanes, this season may require a bit more extra planning than normal.
“Social distancing and other CDC guidance to keep you safe from COVID-19 may impact the disaster preparedness plan you had in place, including what is in your go-kit, evacuation routes, shelters and more,” said Carlos Castillo, FEMA’s acting deputy administrator for resilience.
“It is time to revise and adjust your emergency plan now,” said Castillo. “Natural disasters won’t wait, so I encourage you to keep COVID-19 in mind when revising or making your plan for you and your loved ones, and don’t forget your pets.”
Hurricanes and COVID-19
Emergency managers in some parts of the country are staring down a potentially brutal hurricane season. But they’re also still in the thick of their response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has caused massive disruptions to hospitals, first responders and local budgets.
Together, the coronavirus pandemic and a rough hurricane season could spell disaster for many communities on the East Coast.
Even so, emergency management professionals like Scott Mickalonis are staying optimistic and taking all the steps necessary to prepare for the worst.
Mickalonis, vice president of emergency management for The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, acknowledged that COVID-19 will create some challenges this hurricane season. But none that his team can’t overcome.
His team in Pennsylvania is primarily worried about potential wind events, flooding and flash flooding that can result from hurricanes or tropical storms originating in the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. Power outages and power failures are also a top concern.
“We’re looking at this from a multi-threat perspective and how we can work with our most vulnerable populations to be prepared,” he said.
COVID-19 has inspired numerous conversations among Mickalonis and partner organizations about issues like supply chain management, infrastructure availability and security.
“Hospitals and healthcare organizations have typically been very open and welcoming buildings and are a focal point of a community in a disaster,” he said. “But COVID has changed the ability to have that open environment. We have to be cognizant of the COVID risks that are ongoing throughout these disaster times.”
Emergency managers, particularly those who work closely with healthcare organizations are asking questions like: Should all hurricane victims be presumed to be COVID-19-positive? What precautions need to be in place for a trauma-surge event at a healthcare facility? What tweaks need to be made to evacuation plans, public sheltering and feeding operations? And what considerations should hospitals make for their staff members, who are already taxed from the pandemic itself?
Personal protective equipment and other healthcare essentials are already in short supply because of COVID-19, a challenge that Mickalonis and other healthcare-focused emergency managers will continue to grapple with during the looming hurricane season. His and other hospital systems are still working to get back to a “new normal” for supplies, he said.
Though these two converging disasters no doubt make emergency management more challenging in 2020, Mickalonis is also eyeing the potential opportunities. For one, it reiterates the already well-established need for collaboration among diverse emergency management-related stakeholder groups and shows the true value of working in harmony. It’s also an opportunity for healthcare organizations to evaluate their hazard vulnerability analyses through a new lens.
“This is presenting opportunities to grow the profession with enhanced planning, enhanced research and an even deeper understanding of how emergency management fits into other public health processes,” he said. “It’s a huge opportunity for us to be able to grow and understand what we can do as emergency managers that can continue to help the community.”
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CORVENA is utilized by over 19,000 active users in more than 26 U.S. states. CORVENA has supported over 380,000 emergency response incidents and has supported the treatment or transfer of over 22,000 patients.