- Hurricane and wildfire seasons in the US both begin in June.
- The US probably won’t have its coronavirus outbreak under control by then, so officials are scrambling to prepare for the likely intersection of at least two major disasters this summer or fall.
- Disaster management and relief will almost certainly be hampered by the pandemic, since social distancing would be compromised as people evacuate and emergency personnel mobilize.
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In the last 10 years, California experienced four of its five biggest fires ever. The US’s fifth consecutive season of above-average hurricane activity is expected this summer.
The 2020 hurricane and wildfire seasons are imminent: June 1 marks the official beginning of hurricane season, and the last of California’s snowpack is expected to melt within weeks of that. So it’s very likely that a natural disaster will come before the US is able to get its coronavirus outbreak under control.
Americans in California and the Gulf Coast could be caught in the crossfire as the two intersect.
Given that social distancing is key to minimising the coronavirus’ spread, emergency officials are already beginning to plan for the ways the pandemic will fundamentally change how Americans evacuate at-risk areas and how personnel respond to fires and storms.
“We will see concurrent disasters. The only variable is when and how big it will be,” Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director at Columbia University’s National Centre for Disaster Preparedness, told Business Insider. “A major disaster will be made worse by COVID-19, and COVID-19 will be made worse by another major disaster. There is no way around that.”
COVID-19 will intersect with a natural disaster
The National Interagency Fire Centre expects a higher-than-normal risk of large fires in northern California and parts of the Pacific Northwest starting in June.
The 2020 hurricane season, meanwhile, is slated to be above average in terms of activity, according to projections from Colorado State University and AccuWeather. One model suggests there’s a nearly 70% chance that at least one major hurricane (Category 3 or higher) will make landfall in the US.
Climate change increases the severity and likelihood of storms and fires, and the last five years were the hottest ever on Earth. The trend is is anticipated to continue in 2020.
The intersection of severe weather and COVID-19 is already happening in the southeastern US, which is experiencing its deadliest tornado year since 2012. Nearly 50 people have died.
The coronavirus complicates evacuation orders and emergency shelters
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, messaging from public health officials has been consistent: “Stay home, prevent the spread of the virus.”
But once a major hurricane is heading for the US, staying home will prove too dangerous for residents of high-risk areas. Trevor Riggen, senior vice president for disaster cycle services at the American Red Cross, told Business Insider that the organisation has been “planning for the impact of the pandemic since late-January.”
The Red Cross recently adapted some of its disaster management protocols to keep its staff, volunteers, and evacuees safe during the outbreak. The organisation is using laptops and other mobile technology to limit person-to-person contact when assessing damages and providing emotional and financial support for impacted families. The guidelines also call for volunteers to deliver supplies, rather than distributing food and other emergency items a central location.
The biggest protocol tweak the Red Cross has made, according to Riggen, is that the organisation is already working with state officials to identify and prepare hotels and dormitories for those who need to flee their homes. Usually, displaced people are housed in Red Cross shelters that open following a disaster.
“We’d like to not open one at all if we can avoid it,” Riggen said.
These guidelines have already come into play with the recent tornadoes. According to the Associated Press, about 550 people across four states stayed in hotel rooms paid for by the Red Cross – rather than shelters – after the of twisters destroyed homes in April.
Riggen noted, however, that future disasters could impact more people than hotels and dorms can accommodate.
“When we do need to open a shelter, we’re going to make sure it’s safe enough that families feel secure evacuating there and removing themselves from harm’s way,” he said.
That will involve instituting temperature checks at the door, requiring everyone to wear masks, creating a separate facility for evacuees with COVID-19 symptoms, staffing the shelter with healthcare workers, separating cots 6 feet apart, and serving meals individually, rather than cafeteria style.
Greg Brunelle, vice-president of global engagement and emergency management for the California company One Concern, told Business Insider that he expects greater fear of outsiders who flee disasters than has been seen in other years.
“We need to reassure the people in those places that may receive disaster refugees that states and localities are taking every measure to protect them and the people who are evacuating,” he said.
Despite all these preparations, however, the exposure risks of travel, coupled with fears about the safety of crowded emergency shelters, will likely lead more Americans to try to ride out storms at home this year. Even during a regular season, many people are reluctant to evacuate ahead of a hurricane, since doing so is costly and requires access to transportation. Plus, not all families have nearby friends or relatives with whom to shelter.
It’s ‘almost impossible’ to keep firefighters safe from COVID-19
The same challenges around evacuations and shelters apply to Californians fleeing a blaze; but then add to that the need for firefighters to stay 6 feet apart.
Typically, after a major fire sparks, thousands of firefighters come to the area and set up a nearby camp, where they stay until the fire is brought under control.
“Picture it this way: You have 1,400-plus firefighters sitting on 5 acres of land, and there are facilities to house them, wash their clothes, maintain and store their equipment,” Tim Edwards, president of the Cal Fire Local 2881 union, told Business Insider. “It’s almost impossible to keep your 6-foot distancing and feed these guys.”
It’s also challenging to keep equipment and vehicles sanitised during a fire, and wearing protective masks can make it difficult for firefighters to communicate with each other.
Cal Fire, like the Red Cross, is looking into measures that would minimise coronavirus risk, like temperature checks and isolating individual fire crews from one another. But Edwards said it’s not realistic to properly fight both COVID-19 and major fires.
What’s more, the coronavirus may already be increasing the threat of wildfires, since the US Forest Service suspended prescribed fires – which lower fire risk – during the pandemic out of concern that smoke generated would affect Californians with compromised airways. So crews haven’t cleared the vegetation that serves as fuel.
A dearth of emergency personnel and mutual aid between states
In March, President Donald Trump tapped FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is responsible for responding to natural disasters) to lead the US’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. The agency is working with the Department of Health and Human Services to procure and distribute additional medical supplies and ventilators to state, local, tribal, and territorial governments. A FEMA spokesperson told Business Insider in an email that the agency has enough personnel to fight a two-front war.
“FEMA currently has over 3,035 employees supporting the COVID-19 pandemic response out of more than 20,443 agency employees who are prepared to respond to other emergencies should they occur,” the statement said.
But Brock Long, the former FEMA administrator, told Business Insider that responding to overlapping disasters requires more than just one agency.
“Disaster response and recovery is locally executed, state managed, and federally supported. It’s a team sport,” Long said.
So even if FEMA’s resources aren’t compromised, the pandemic is still likely to create roadblocks for local responses.
“I am concerned that many of the first waves of response that survivors depend on during a disaster, including first responders, neighbours helping neighbours, and volunteers who travel from out of state to help with clean-up, cooking, and donate much needed supplies, will all be constrained because of the public health crisis,” Caela O’Connell, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, told Business Insider.
Usually, fire-struck or storm-struck states rely on mutual aid from neighbouring states in the form of supplies and personnel.
“That may not be the case this year,” Brunelle said.