Today is the official start of hurricane season, which is kind of like football season, only with fewer blown calls by the officials. Of course, Mother Nature wasn’t waiting for the human calendar to kick things off this year. Two named storms formed last month and the NOAA forecast for the season is calling for an increase in activity. So that has emergency planners on the east and Gulf coasts feeling a bit nervous. If some seriously large category 4 or 5 storms take aim at our shores in 2020, normal evacuation plans (never bulletproof in the best of times) are going to be even more dangerous with COVID-19 muddying the picture. And if these nightly riots don’t calm down soon, there may not be any emergency vehicles left to help people trying to flee. (NPR)
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season starts Monday, and federal scientists expect storms to be more frequent and powerful. Two named storms already formed in the Atlantic this spring before the official start of the season. As Florida and other coastal states plan for hurricanes, they are confronting troubling new public safety calculations because of the coronavirus.
There’s now a chance for one disaster to layer upon another. Many lives could be lost: first, from powerful winds, storm surges and flooding, and then through the spread of the coronavirus in cramped public shelters following mass evacuations. Evacuees might pass the virus to friends and relatives who take them in, or get infected themselves in those new surroundings.
“The risks are significant,” says David Abramson, a professor at New York University’s College of Global Public Health, whose research examines the health consequences of hurricanes. “A lot of hurricane events lead to evacuations and displacements” without much time to build in social distancing safeguards, he says.
In years past we have discussed the fact that the annual NOAA storm season predictions and two dollars probably wouldn’t get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. They are frequently off by significant numbers in either direction. And even if you come close to guessing the total number of regular and major storms, what really matters is how many of them are going to make landfall. (The disastrous 2004 storm season was originally predicted by NOAA to be a “moderate” season. We wound up getting hit by 9, with four of those hitting Florida alone for a total cost of $61 billion.)
So does that mean we should probably just relax and not become overly worried about it? Don’t be silly. This is 2020. We’re probably going to have a hurricane hit Kansas based on how things have been going thus far. Only this morning I saw a notification that the Chainsaw Bears had arrived in the United States.
So, all joking aside, what should emergency planners be doing about this? Our normal routine sees us waiting until the last possible minute, then declaring an evacuation. People load up their cars, wait in traffic on packed roads and eventually wind up in a high school gymnasium somewhere further inland. There they are packed in like sardines with everyone else who lives too close to the ocean. sleeping on cots and using overflowing public toilets. I don’t care how many cloth masks you have, that’s just an invitation for another massive novel coronavirus flareup. Only this time the hospitals will already be overflowing with victims of the storm.
Also, every evacuation runs the risk of some people trying to take advantage of a crisis and looting people’s abandoned homes and stores. Have you seen what’s going on in the streets every night lately? Picture that problem on steroids. The difference is, with everyone clearing out, the looters won’t even bother waiting for the sun to go down.
So is there a solution? There might be, but people aren’t going to like it. We should probably consider not being so cautious about calling an evacuation when one doesn’t wind up being needed and not waiting so long to make the call. If there’s a reasonable chance of a storm hitting a particular section of the coast, get people moving in sectors several days in advance, starting with those closest to the water. Emergency planners should have those maps already drawn. And people will need to be sent further inland to spread out the burden that would normally fall on the closest available shelters. That would at least give the evacuees a reasonable chance at maintaining their social distancing and not running the area entirely out of supplies.
Smarter people than I can probably come up with some addition and likely better plans. But if we get caught with our pants down this year in a parade of storms with all of these complicating factors, we’ll have nobody to blame but ourselves. On the bright side, the wind will probably wipe out a significant percentage of the swarms of locusts that should be arriving any day now.