Trying to evacuate your home before a hurricane hits is hard enough. Now imagine doing it against the backdrop of the ongoing covid-19 pandemic.
Hurricane season is two months away. And the latest forecast for the 2020 hurricane season shows that the Atlantic is likely to see an above-average number of hurricanes. Meanwhile, the coronavirus doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon, which could unleash a nightmare scenario.
Colorado State University released its annual hurricane season forecast Thursday, and the findings are pretty unnerving during these times of economic and physical uncertainty. Living in a world struck by a highly contagious virus is hard enough. But adding devastating hurricanes to the mix? That’s another level of heartbreak.
The scientists estimate that this season will see about eight hurricanes. Four of them being at least a Category 3, the threshold for major hurricanes. That’s above the average of about six hurricanes, of which two become major hurricanes in a given season. The analysis also found a 69 percent chance that at least one major hurricane could make landfall in the U.S. The reasons for the active forecast are the warm ocean temperatures in the Atlantic, which are associated with lower-than-normal pressure. Those are two key ingredients for an active hurricane season. Climate change is set to make these seasons all the more active due to warmer waters and increased moisture in the atmosphere.
On their own, these are pretty frightening projections. But the novel coronavirus situation makes the situation that much more worrisome. Hospitalizations due to covid-19 are expected to extend well into summertime for southern states such as Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, all places that are no strangers to hurricanes. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis ordered residents to stay home only this week. Many parks and stores remain closed in Louisiana where the number of cases is already more than 9,000. However, the nation needs a coordinated response with all officials on board if the U.S. wants to avoid an ultra-disastrous hurricane season, Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management and disaster science at the University of Nebraska Omaha, told Earther.
“We really need particularly elected officials to be doing everything possible to get the covid situation under control as quickly as possible,” Montano said. “We need to try to get ourselves out of these peaks of the covid curve so that they are not aligning with hurricane season as much as we can.”
Hurricanes are disastrous enough without the backdrop of a pandemic. Hurricane Maria left nearly 3,000 people dead in Puerto Rico, Harvey flooded Houston, and Irma slammed the Florida coast in 2017 amidst the most destructive hurricane season on record. Hurricane Michael dealt the Florida Panhandle a devastating hit the year after. The U.S. has seen tragedy unfold in the wake of these storms without a public health crisis underway. The reality of what this might look like amid covid-19 is something emergency managers will have to get creative to solve.
For one, there’s the issue of evacuation. Some people may be able to get out in the safety of their personal vehicles. But for those who rely on public transit, Montano said that’ll be tricky in the age of social distancing. Evacuations could grow even more complicated when they involve entire hospitals, which are struggling to even maintain any order in the day-to-day of handling the coronavirus outbreak.
“Evacuating a hospital on a good day is a difficult thing to do, and then you add an extremely contagious virus on top of that , and obviously that becomes much more difficult,” Montano said.
After evacuations often come shelters, which have never historically been that organized or safe to begin with. The Superdome in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is a testament to the failure that can happen when you cram thousands inside a single space during a time of crisis. Now, shelters will have to keep people six feet apart, adding another challenge.
Another issue is that many families turn to hotels instead of formal federal emergency shelters. However, hotels have shut down during the pandemic. They’d need to be up and running (and staffed) before a hurricane approaches for families to seek shelter there. Most importantly, families need to have the necessary resources to afford to pay hotel costs if they want to avoid official shelters. With unemployment at an all-time high, that option may no longer exist for many people.
Then, there’s the concern for those who don’t make it out of their homes. Search and rescue is a key task during and after these events. Some people are unable to just pack a bag and run. Others refuse, and the risk of contracting coronavirus on the road may convince more people to ride out the storm at home. But the coronavirus won’t hit pause during all this. First responders will be at increased risk of catching the virus and spreading it during such a disaster. And volunteers who typically turn out to help search and rescue or distribute reliefmay decide the risk isn’t worth it this time.
“We may see that there’s less people who show up to help, which could create problems, or we could see that people do still show up to help, and then we’re putting them at risk by being, again, physically close with one another,” Montano told Earther. “This would become a pretty big challenge with dispersing donations and actually even receiving donations.”
And we haven’t even gotten into the days after a hurricane. Recovery relies on crews of workers to come clear debris and rebuild. That will be hard to coordinate without exposing workers to the virus. These laborers already work under unsafe and unacceptable conditions as is.
If local emergency management agencies do take the time to prepare for these risks ahead of time, their communities may have a chance. However, agencies are already underfunded and understaffed, and now they’re overwhelmed by the current public health emergency. That sets up a series of risks for the coming hurricane season.
“Every disaster researcher is out here warning folks that these hazards don’t happen in isolation from one another. They compound on one another. One disaster builds on another,” Montano said.