Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

Hurricane and Wildfire Season 2021: Challenges and Obstacles Amidst Ongoing COVID-19 Response and Recovery

June 1, 2021 will mark the second consecutive Atlantic hurricane and wildfire season that starts during the lingering COVID-19 Pandemic. Once again, government, non-profit, private-sector entities, and Americans in hurricane and wildfire-prone states will have to grapple with how to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters that are complicated enough in their own right, but are made even more complex given the current state of COVID-19 response and recovery.

While this might seem like yet another obstacle for emergency managers, credit should be given to the innovative and creative solutions that emerged from the 2020 season. Last year, during the first waves of the pandemic, practitioners began planning for what would become one of the most unique hurricane and wildfire seasons in history. Public messaging and guidance was adjusted, evacuation timelines were moved up, and mass care and sheltering protocols were rewritten. As we prepare for disasters in the 2021, it is important that we recognize what is the same, and what is different compared to a year ago.

Late 2020 and 2021 have brought hope and progress, as millions of Americans have been vaccinated and vaccine supply has increased. COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates across the country are down overall, and the United States (US) economy continues to bounce back. Concurrently, we have seen an increased spread of COVID-19 variants, vaccine hesitancy for those in certain age groups and demographics, as well as the potential for increases in COVID-19 hospitalization rates in some US states/ territories. Therefore, while COVID-19 concerns may no longer be novel to some this summer, they certainly remain.

Hurricane Dorian (2019) from Outerspace: NASA

The following are a few challenges emergency managers will face this hurricane and wildfire season and should immediately begin planning for if they have not done so already.

Disaster Fatigue and Burnout Amongst Emergency Management Professionals and the Public. As emergency managers, we are hard-wired to work long hours in operations centers or in the field to accomplish the mission, find solutions, and change outcomes. However, the past 14 months have been unlike any event or incident experienced before, both in complexity and duration. While our teams have risen to the occasion consistently over the past year and a half, we should acknowledge the sacrifice and effort emergency management professionals have already made and all those who have taken on additional duties to support the ongoing pandemic response. These are the same individuals who, after a tropical storm,  hurricane landfall, or wildfire ignition, help our communities recover. We should recognize the toll the last year has taken on those who will also be called on to support communities before, during, and after the next event and find ways to support them.

We’ve heard the term COVID fatigue mentioned mainly in a clinical sense – referring to lasting physical impacts from the illness – however, it can also reference a general desire by the public to return to normal, and even lead to a disinterest in COVID-19 risk mitigation measures. It’s easy to see why COVID fatigue exists and it remains to be seen how the past year will impact their hurricane and wildfire planning and evacuation decision-making. Will the public prepare more or less than they have in previous years? Will they change their thinking on whether to evacuate when instructed to do so? Will they look at protective action orders with a more skeptical eye? All of these questions should be considered in this month’s lead up to hurricane season and peak time for wildfires in the West.

Continued Importance of Public Messaging. Last year, jurisdictions made significant changes to sheltering and evacuation plans and needed to effectively communicate those changes to the public. With COVID-19 mitigation measures in place for the foreseeable future in some states, public messaging will once again need to be adjusted and communicated effectively. Additionally, it will be important for the public to remember that a life threatening natural hazard – such as storm surge from a hurricane or tropical storm, or a fast-moving wildfire – is the greater threat than potential exposure to COVID-19 and they should evacuate if told to do so by local and/or state officials. Emergency management professionals should also communicate the risks of evacuating when it is unnecessary to do so and promote moving the fewest amount of people the shortest distance possible. Now, more than ever, emergency managers should be clear and concise in messaging across platforms.

Increasing Fiscal Strain at the State/ Local Level. Although the economy continues to recover and more federal resources have been allocated to COVID-19 individual assistance type programs, those who took the hardest hits financially last year were already some of the nation’s most vulnerable populations. As emergency managers, we spend most of our time planning to protect and support these same individuals. Stretches of unemployment and related financial difficulties throughout the pandemic have made it more difficult for many to prepare for or focus on the risks they may face from natural disasters. This year, those responding to major disasters should be prepared to support more survivors over a longer period of time than compared to past events.

California’s Lowell Fire: Unsplash

Conclusion

Throughout the month of May, Hagerty’s Response professionals will be authoring a weekly blog post to provide emergency managers across the country things to consider and plan for as they prepare to respond to disasters this summer. 

Hurricane and wildfire response in 2021 will no doubt be filled with challenges, some of them leftover from 2020 and some new. For the second time in as many years, emergency managers will once again have to balance the ongoing COVID-19 response and recovery with the immediate life-threatening risk from hurricanes and wildfires. We can all hope that this year will be the last where this type of dual response is required.


Lee Mayfield is Hagerty’s Response Director and is a proven emergency management leader with over 13 years of experience in disaster planning, response, and recovery – specializing in state and local coordination, training and exercise, mass care, evacuation prioritization, and crisis response.

Prior to joining Hagerty, Lee served as the Director of Public Safety and Emergency Management for Lee County, FL where he oversaw and supported the county’s response to and recovery from Hurricane Irma in 2017. 

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