As if the coronavirus pandemic and murder hornets weren’t enough to produce eye-opening headlines, we are just about to enter the annual hurricane season. Given all of the demands being made on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at a time when all fifty states and territories have declared, simultaneously, a major disaster because of the pandemic, preparations are being made now for hurricane season.
Axios has a detailed piece about FEMA’s operational guide under development. Its title is “COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance for the 2020 Hurricane Season.” Pete Gaynor was appointed as Acting Administrator by President Donald Trump on March 8, 2019, and became Administrator on January 16, 2020. His expertise is in emergency management. Let’s hope that the prediction that this year’s hurricane season will be a harsh one doesn’t prove to be true. He says that FEMA is ordering 100,000 “human remains pouches” (body bags) just in case they are needed.
“We’re doing a lot of things that are not necessarily in any playbook that has existed. In some cases, we write the playbook as we go.” Hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30. The forecast is for 16 named storms with eight becoming hurricanes. There is a 95% chance — the average is 84% — that at least one hurricane this year will make landfall in the US. Experts at Colorado State University predict four of the hurricanes will become major storms of Category 3 to 5.
Most of my life has been spent living on the Gulf coast. I’ve lived through hurricanes, some milder than others. The top three on my list, during my adult years anyway, would be Hurricane Andrew in 1992 when we lived in Louisiana. That storm devastated The Bahamas, then parts of Florida, and then it traveled to south Louisiana. Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 was devastating to parts of the Houston area. The part of the city in which we live survived without as much damage as others, but the Medical Center, for example, experienced a historic flooding event. Last but most traumatic for my city was Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Houston and surrounding areas all the way to the coast were drowned by that beast of a storm. So, for FEMA to be preparing for an active hurricane season this year while dealing with a pandemic, it does seem like the combination of events could easily overwhelm resources and manpower.
Think of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. So many people had to be relocated and so many died due to the sheer incompetence of state and local officials. While the federal government was asking the governor and mayor of New Orleans to evacuate the city, they hesitated until it was too late. President Bush even called the governor before the storm hit, yet there they sat. Imagine if a pandemic was raging through the city of New Orleans, as it is now, and thousands of people were hospitalized, including those on ventilators, fighting the effects of the coronavirus. How long would it take to evacuate all of them and where would they be transported to?
During normal hurricane evacuations, people are sheltered in large facilities and something like social distancing is impossible. Community centers, churches, civic centers, and stadiums all open up to take in those who must leave their homes. FEMA, to put it kindly, hasn’t always been very prepared for these national emergencies. From my own experience, though, I can say that the federal response in the build-up and during the storm event of Hurricane Harvey was the best I’ve ever seen. FEMA was on the ground and ready for whatever happened. President Trump’s administration should get credit for that. So, since FEMA is preparing for the worst, the agency is doing what it can to plan ahead, besides ordering an abundance of body bags.
The agency has taken over vacant office space in downtown Washington, D.C., and set up an additional command center — called a “surge” National Response Coordination Center — for staff across the government to handle the non-COVID catastrophes threatening America this summer.
One nightmarish prospect: “If we have to evacuate a hospital, that hospital typically would just evacuate the patients,” Gaynor said. “But now we’ve got to make sure they evacuate the patients, the medical equipment like ventilators, pharmaceuticals that allow ventilators to be used on patients in ICUs. All those things now make it more difficult, there’s no doubt about it.”
Natural disasters like floods may mean hospitals have to transfer patients sick with COVID-19 to other facilities that will take them.
“Locals and states really have to understand some of those challenges and plan for that,” Gaynor said, adding that FEMA will try to help.
In other parts of the country, wildfire season will be a factor, as well as earthquakes and flooding, which will all require a federal response. Gaynor sounds optimistic as he says that he is “highly confident” FEMA can manage an unprecedented summer.
Preparedness also means that governors are going to have to continue working with the federal government. While some governors have tried to make accusations that the federal government is diverting their supplies of equipment like masks and ventilators to others, Gaynor denied it. Politics filters into everything, even a public health emergency. For example, Maryland’s Governor Hogan, who flirted with the notion of running against President Trump for the GOP nomination, made hay of the fact that his South Korean-born wife used her contacts to help him secure coronavirus tests from that country for Maryland residents when the federal government allegedly wasn’t able to help him out. He’s been using Maryland National Guard to guard that shipment. He now says that may not be necessary. Oh, brother.
The same is true for any claims that the government is diverting personal protective equipment (PPE).
FEMA’s press secretary Lizzie Litzow added in a statement: “FEMA does not, has not and will not divert orders of personal protective equipment (PPE) from our federal, state and local partners, nor do we have the legal authority to do so. Reports of FEMA commandeering or re-routing such supplies are false.”
“If a hospital believes this has happened to them, it should be reported to the governor. If a governor believes that this has happened to their supplies, it should be reported to the FEMA Region.”
The important takeaway from all this is that FEMA is preparing for any potential additional disasters that will require a federal response. And, the agency is encouraging states and local communities to get ready, too, for whatever may be heading our way.