April 8, 2020
What if a Natural Disaster Strikes During the COVID-19 Pandemic?
By: burgundy bug
Emergency responders clean up the aftermath of an earthquakeSource: Adobe Stock
The coronavirus pandemic has rattled life as we once knew it, like an earthquake trembling society’s foundation… But if an actual earthquake, a hurricane, a tornado, or a tsunami were to hit right now, what would happen?
Last week, we reached out to various organizations including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, World Health Organization, and American Red Cross to find out what emergency response would look like during a pandemic.
“As Administrator Gaynor stated previously, it’s not just FEMA, but all local, state, tribal and territorial government agencies and emergency managers who are having to re-evaluate how response to more traditional types of emergencies will be handled in this pandemic climate,” said a FEMA spokesperson via email.
Planning emergency response efforts is going to be a challenge, but FEMA is currently working with other states and partners to discuss “how it may change sheltering or other more traditional resources provided during emergency response,” they explained.
“And in the current COVID-19 response, every level of government, the private sector, non-profits, and faith-based organizations are all involved, so all possible resources are being put to use,” the FEMA spokesperson wrote. “And in any future response, those will be valuable resources that can be brought to the table. ”
With supply shortages aggravating the pressure and panic of the situation, FEMA has also deployed a Supply Chain Stabilization Task Force to find a national solution.
Their four-prong approach, “Preservation, Acceleration, Expansion, and Allocation,” focuses on locating available supplies, figuring out how to recycle them safely, accelerating production of new supplies, helping manufacturers expand their production lines, and distributing the supplies to the healthcare providers and first responders.
“Making sure that communities can turn to the Red Cross after a disaster is at the heart of what we do,” said an American Red Cross representative via email. “We are closely monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic and are continuing to carry out our lifesaving mission. The Red Cross is working closely with public health officials to ensure the safety of local communities and our workforce, while still providing the help and hope they need should disaster strike.”
American Red Cross said they’re opening disaster shelters in coordination with local public health authorities and at the request of emergency management.
To keep those within the diaster shelters safe, the American Red Cross is partnering with local officials to:
- Set up a healthcare screening for everyone who enters the disaster shelters
- Create an isolation care area within the shelters
- Provide masks, tissues, and plastic bags throughout the shelters
- Respect social distancing practices by staggering meal times and adding extra space between cots, chairs, tables, and so forth
- Provide additional handwashing stations within the shelters
- Increase wellness checks to identify potential illness among staff and shelter residents
- Increase cleaning and disinfecting measures throughout the shelters
“The Red Cross is also continuing to provide services for people who have experienced home fires, though responses may be supported virtually and by remote work where there are government-directed social distancing or shelter-in-place measures in effect,” the American Red Cross representative wrote. “Our physical presence may not be the same across the country, but the emergency help we provide will continue, including financial assistance as well as other resource like health and mental health services which may be provided over the phone.”
Although WHO was unavailable to speak for an interview due to understandably high inquiry volumes, we were referred to their resources page, which contains pertinent information about the COVID-19 pandemic including:
“FACT: You can recover from the coronavirus disease. Catching the new coronavirus DOES NOT mean you will have it for life.”Source: COVID-19 Myth Busters | WHO
Note: Other government organizations we contacted have yet to respond – most likely due to high media inquiry volumes. However, we will update this article if we receive additional responses.
What is the Likelihood of a Natural Disaster Right Now?
Regardless of how likely a natural disaster would be at the moment, being prepared is central to administering safe and effective emergency relief.
Some natural disasters are entirely unpredictable, like tsunamis and earthquakes, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and United States Geological Survey respectively.
“Tsunamis are among Earth’s most infrequent hazards,” the NOAA writes on their tsunami safety website. “But even though tsunamis do not occur very often, and most are small and nondestructive, they pose a major threat to coastal communities, particularly in the Pacific.”
Similarly, an earthquake has yet to be predicted by the USGS or any scientist in history, the USGS website states.
“We do not know how [to predict an earthquake], and we do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future,” the USGS says. “USGS scientists can only calculate the probability that a significant earthquake will occur in a specific area within a certain number of years.”
Tornadoes are also hard for researchers to predict. While the NOAA Storm Prediction Center keeps track of tornadoes throughout the year and assess tornado risks on a daily basis, these forecasts are more time-sensitive. They’re not predictions for the year, they’re predictions by the hour, day, or week.
In any case, preparation remains vital on all fronts. Safe evacuation practices need to be formulated whether residents are seeking refugee from a tsunami, an earthquake, a tornado, flooding, or a hurricane.
That being said, floods and hurricanes are two natural disasters researchers are able to analyze and forecast.
Flooding During COVID-19 Pandemic
The NOAA’s flood forecast last month predicts “major to moderate flooding is likely in 23 states from the Northern Plains south to the Gulf Coast, with the most significant flood potential in parts of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota” this spring.
However, the NOAA forecasters say it shouldn’t be as severe or prolonged as the historic flooding from last year.
“This spring season, 128 million people face an elevated flooding risk in their communities, with 28 million at risk for moderate or greater flooding, and 1.2 million at risk for major flooding,” says the NOAA 2020 National Hydrologic Assessment executive summary.
Following the forecast, the Union of Concerned Scientists analyzed the risks associated with flooding during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Looking at how the percent of infected residents intersects with spring flood risk gives us a sense of a county’s capacity to mount an effective emergency response to flooding,” the UCS writes. “For instance, in counties where a large percent of the population is infected, a higher proportion of people evacuating during a flood could increase the spread of the virus or require isolation, a condition that could be difficult given the typical nature of emergency shelters.”
Rural areas with limited access to health care and heightened chances of flooding are at the highest risk of spreading the virus, the analysis demonstrates.
“These include some of the same areas hit hard by flooding last year, such as eastern South Dakota and eastern Iowa,” the USC says. “Both regions are at risk of experiencing major flooding in the months ahead, and both include a number of counties that are presently projected to have 25 percent or more of the population infected by the coronavirus in the same timeframe.”
Hurricanes During COVID-19 Pandemic
Hurricanes are another risk-factor to take into consideration when we think about how flooding will affect these communities.
Colorado State University’s Department of Atmospheric Science released a forecast of Atlantic Seasonal Hurricane activity on April 2.
“We anticipate that the 2020 Atlantic basin hurricane season will have above-normal activity,” the forecast states. “We anticipate an above-average probability for major hurricanes making landfall along the continental United States coastline and in the Caribbean.”
The forecast predicts there will be eight hurricanes, four major hurricanes, nine major hurricane days, and a total of 35 hurricane days in 2020. There could also be 16 named storms, and 80 named storm days.
A Tornado forming in the evening from a supercell.Source: Adobe Stock
Supply shortages and social distancing practices can cause serious complications for emergency responders called to the site of a natural disaster – are there enough masks for the responders and those in need of relief? How do you stay six-feet apart if someone needs to be rescued from a flood?
Natural disasters still remain a very real threat. Social distancing may separate us from our loved ones, but it doesn’t stop a hurricane from paying you a visit.
Yet, it’s important not to panic, either. Prepare for the worst-case scenario, but hope for the best.
Fear, anger, and despair are all valid emotions you may be experiencing right now and there are mental health resources, like the Disaster Distress Helpline (1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746), available to help you and many others cope.
On a global scale, now is the time for a collective effort to help our communities. While government and non-profit organizations join together to work on safe solutions, we need to do our part as citizens, neighbors, children, and parents to protect those around us.
“At the individual level, we must all act responsibly in this dire moment by heeding or exceeding local guidelines for sheltering in place at home and maintaining a safe social distance from others when we are outside our homes,” the USC says. “And we must begin gathering official guidance and formulating safe, sensible plans for our families in the event of disruptive local flooding.”
Cash donations to non-profit organizations are the most effective way to aid COVID-19 relief efforts, says the FEMA website.
If you’re a vendor with medical supplies to donate to healthcare providers and emergency responders amidst the pandemic, please contact FEMA.
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