Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

COVID-19: A Catalyst for Transformed Natural Disaster Preparedness

The United States (US) now has a total 1.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, with forecasts expecting to see rising patient demand exceed hospital capacity in counties across the country.

Every region is also beginning to confront their respective natural disaster seasons. Nationwide, forecasters expect 23 states to see moderate to major flooding this spring. Eastern States and Gulf coastal communities are facing an above-average hurricane season, with an expected 16 named storms and at least one major landfall. This week marks Flood Awareness Week in Texas, where communities are likely to face both of these impacts.

May is also Wildfire Awareness Month, and as Western states are transitioning into fire season, lower than normal snowpack precedes forecasts of above normal fire potential. Heat waves are widely expected across the country, and 2020 may rival 2016 to become the warmest year on record. Tornado activity in April was the deadliest for a single month in nearly a decade, and continued above-normal activity is expected for the remainder of the year.

The trajectory of a natural disaster collision with the COVID-19 pandemic presents emergency officials with an unprecedented demand for co-response capabilities: to simultaneously manage the competing needs for resources, personnel, messaging, and medical capacity caused by distinct disasters. To do so requires a large scale of planning that completely rewrites well instated response operations.

Typically, natural disaster response infrastructure is structured to bring people together through evacuation, sheltering, and medical protocol that reduces the likelihood of exposure to life-threatening conditions. However, the COVID-19 pandemic renders these actions as unsafe because congregate environments can increase individual exposure to life-threatening disease.

In the face of depleted sheltering capabilities and response operations, emergency officials are redefining response plans that can maintain protective actions, while minimizing risk of spreading infections. On May 20, 2020, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released its COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance for the 2020 Hurricane Season, outlining transformed continuity protocol to new health-focused protocols in shelters, with expanded regional and federal operations to bolster capabilities.

As communities continue to mobilize COVID-19 operations in the face of new disasters, there is an important opportunity to dedicate resources and personnel to explore and expand innovative strategies that can mitigate COVID-19 transmission, while simultaneously protecting the public from the imminent danger of natural disasters. A few key takeaways emphasize specific priorities with cross-cutting applicability across local, regional, and federal agencies.

Hagerty offers a co-response toolkit, with specific considerations for the critical capabilities impacted by COVID-19. To learn more, click here. 

Key Takeaway #1: Enable proactive transformation of operational structures. 

At every level, emergency management systems have changed significantly both structurally and operationally to manage the COVID-19 disaster response. The ability of these modified systems to manage the scale of need resulting from any new disaster will require a shift towards proactive strategies that consider new continuity of operations options to effectively share information and authority across personnel.

Defined processes for mobilizing co-response operations can ensure the needs from cascading impacts of new disasters do not overwhelm existing personnel and resources, providing pathways for rapid adaptations if systems need to quickly absorb additional staffing or temporarily operate without individuals who become sick. Structural changes should consider how co-response incident command will operate, whether it be integrated to current operating structures or operating in parallel. This will serve to clarify emergency mandates, and alleviate challenges that may emerge from unclear chains of command or directives.

The virtual components of ongoing response efforts will also require review and investment in order to ensure that continuity planning in virtual settings is prioritizing streamlined communication and coordination. These changes will be especially important when facilitating regional or national coordination, as FEMA plans to facilitate more of both public and operational services through virtual systems. Emergency officials can engage these options by continuing to enhance mobile disaster recovery operations and virtual Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) with redundancy in back up and secure Cloud storage. As operations change and virtual tools improve, there is an opportunity ahead of a concurrent disaster to consider rapidly deployable real-time analyses of active operations to assess gaps, as well as implement virtual exercises to assess transformed operational capacity during a co-response.

Key Takeaway #2: Prioritize systematic changes in evacuation and sheltering strategies.

Evacuation and sheltering operations epitomize the greatest challenge emerging from a natural disaster response during COVID-19: maintaining social distancing while keeping the public safe from natural disasters. Clear evacuation plans should serve to directly alleviate confusion by facilitating cross jurisdictional communication and phasing. Evacuation plans can also be supported through proactive messaging and information campaigns that facilitate understanding of the types of evacuation orders that may be released and how it applies to their specific area.

Photo of a 2020 spring season tornado weather alert by WLBT. Source.

Sheltering approaches should specifically consider the full scope of congregate, non-congregate, and supplementary options to ensure that individuals have an increased allocated amount of space to maintain social distancing. As shelters significantly reduce their defined capacity according to these protocols, state and regional resources can begin to consider options for supplementing the space, personnel, and resources that may be needed to fully absorb potential evacuees. Across the board, clear sanitization protocols and access to resources (e.g., personal protective equipment) will be important to containing any outbreaks.

Key Takeaway #3: Systematic planning can adapt now to expected hurdles for mobilizing a regional response.

The capacity to mobilize resources and personnel has changed significantly as jurisdictions consider how to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Cross-regional support during natural disasters is often characterized by provision of personnel and support through a national mutual aid compact. However, moving personnel and resources across borders under these types of agreements is now clouded by the risk of spreading COVID-19. These changes extend to the ability of natural disaster evacuees to seek services in communities outside their home county or state, especially where authorities require a 14-day self-quarantine period before crossing borders.

These changes cannot be reviewed amid co-response operations – they will require review and contingency planning now. Especially as local jurisdictions, states, and national stakeholders redefine these plans, coordination early on will be a critical determinant of their success.

Photo of a Red Cross volunteer responding to a tornado concurrent to COVID-19. Source.

As personnel are engaged and deployed, it will also be important to prioritize their safety and ability to service the key functions needed during a response. Especially for operations like sheltering and debris removal, which are often performed by volunteers, communities can predict gaps in capacity and identify alternative resources that may be able to fill those gaps. Opportunities should embrace identification of new personnel and cross training for joint information sharing.

As emergency officials proceed with these strategies, they will need to sustain a menu of options that outline how different actions can be prioritized based on available resources. Initiating this range of options now will underscore adaptability and forward-looking strategic decision-making to reposition jurisdictions with redefined individual preparedness.

Ashley Saulcy is a Managing Consultant with Hagerty Consulting’s Preparedness Division currently supporting our service lines to provide a cross-cutting approach to co-response planning. Ashley has served across a diversity of non-profit, government, and international development organizations. Her recent experience in systematic post-disaster community planning includes non-profit support to long-term recovery post-Hurricane Harvey and deployment to the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian.

Jim McIntosh is Hagerty’s Deputy Lead for our exercise service line. He also supports our infrastructure service line with a special focus on transit preparedness. Jim brings more than 20 years of industry experience to our clients, having served as a first responder and emergency manager for both county and transit agencies, and as an emergency management consultant that has supported local, state, federal, and private sector clients. Jim is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM).

Thea Credle is an experienced public health professional with a background in emergency management. With a demonstrated history of program development in all aspects of preparedness and national security, her background includes risk management, preparedness, homeland security, facilitation, as well as training and exercises. Thea is a Master Exercise Practitioner (MEP).