Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on September 1, 2020.

Calamity Before the Storm

What happens when large-scale natural disasters run headlong into the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic? Emergency managers are working overtime to make sure compound crises don't add up to runaway catastrophes.


AS WE ENTER THE FINAL MONTHS of one of the most challenging years in living memory, the emergency management profession is focused obsessively on the many ways 2020 could actually get much worse. And it’s not hard to imagine.

Picture a news report showing an aerial view of once-tidy suburban yards buried beneath collapsed homes and waterlogged debris in the aftermath of a powerful hurricane. Cut to a shot of thousands of people packed into a local school gymnasium, the cots squeezed tightly together to accommodate the stream of families and vulnerable seniors with
nowhere else to go. Cut to another shot of aid workers attempting to screen out those infected with coronavirus as they arrive. Cut to a final shot of a public health official lamenting that, if the COVID-19 virus isn’t spreading through the shelter already, it’s only a matter of time before the two crises merge into a complex new catastrophe.


 LISTEN: THE NFPA PODCAST: Planning for Disaster during COVID
 READ: FEMA Guidance for Hurricanes and COVID-19
 WATCH: CDC's 2020 Hurricane Season During COVID-19 Webinar 
 READ: Red Cross Guidance for Preparing for Disaster During COVID-19

Since January, countless governmental agencies and aid organizations have been hard at work trying to prevent that hypothetical from becoming reality, and their efforts may be tested soon. Based on recent wildfire trends, hurricane predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the general unpredictability of tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes, the odds are great that 2020 will not pass without at least one major natural calamity striking while the US is still in the grips of COVID-19. Most observers agree that it’s a matter of when, not if.

“If you ask about a worst-case scenario, I think we’re pretty much getting there,” said Richard Serino, a former deputy administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with experience in dozens of major catastrophes. “Any natural or manmade disaster that happens on top of this pandemic is going to make the emergency manager's job even worse than it is already.”

Above, an arena set up social-distance style to shelter victims of flooding in Japan in July. Below, the Astrodome in Houston housing evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. GETTY

With so much untested and uncertain, some onlookers are prepared for the worst. Alan Wallace, a disaster recovery researcher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York, has modelled what a hurricane recovery might look like during a pandemic. The specifics of the merging crises, he said, will render huge portions of emergency plans obsolete, from evacuation to sheltering to how emergency operations centers (EOCs) function. “Many of the typical disaster response strategies we turn to after any of these events are going to have to be rethought,” he said. “I am worried we are not ready and that we are looking at a major, major catastrophe.”

The public safety officials interviewed for this story, however, expressed optimism that, even with a short timeframe, they have strategies in place to mitigate whatever situation arises, even during a pandemic. Preparing for this “incident on top of an incident” has forced agencies to engage with partners across a broad spectrum—including those with whom they may have had little or no interaction previously—to work out questions and contingencies they’d never had to consider. For instance: How do you move vulnerable populations like nursing home residents during a pandemic? How do you shelter potentially thousands of people without spreading a deadly virus? How do you run an EOC during a pandemic?

These discussions have produced a range of novel approaches and new capabilities, many of which could change how emergency management operates long after the current COVID threat passes, experts said.

“The situation has brought together more people to talk through a myriad of planning considerations that we can use and leverage for other things down the road,” said Anna McRay, the assistant director of emergency management for New Hanover County, in coastal North Carolina. “It has helped us, for example, identify some unique ways of thinking about how to support some of our most fragile populations, even on a day-to-day basis—things that transcend all the different hazards that we’re thinking about here.”

Luke Beckman, the division disaster director of state relations for the Pacific Division of the American Red Cross, summed it up like this: “With COVID, the mission hasn’t changed—the way we do the mission has.”

For the Red Cross, and for just about every agency dealing with COVID, the question of how to safely evacuate and shelter hundreds or thousands of disaster victims has been the most pressing challenge to solve. For obvious reasons, the usual strategy of housing evacuees in large, open, densely packed high school gyms and convention halls—known as congregate sheltering—is far from ideal in this disaster season. Instead, FEMA and the Red Cross have encouraged local agencies to focus on securing non-congregate alternatives such as hotel rooms, college dormitories, and similar smaller spaces where evacuees can be segregated into family units to cut down on possible transmission.

Space Crunch: How COVID is Causing Shelter Space to Disappear

While the concept of non-congregate sheltering is straightforward in theory, “the pivot to non-congregate has been by far the largest adjustment we've had to make,” Beckman said. “For the last six months we’ve been working 24/7 to ensure we have these types of shelter resources available across the country.”

The plan got its first major test run in early August when the Apple Fire broke out in the San Bernardino Mountains, east of Los Angeles. By the next day, the fast-moving wildfire had forced officials to order nearly 8,000 residents to leave their homes, and the Red Cross got to work. Instead of the typical Red Cross emergency center where thousands of displaced people gather at a large facility, the Red Cross set up what it calls a “temporary evacuation point,” essentially an expansive parking lot. Most evacuees arrived by car, and aid workers “helped each family unit get on to that next step of their recovery, whatever that looks like, while they're still in their car,” Beckman said. As of August 6, the Red Cross had provided 327 overnight hotel stays to people seeking shelter as a result of the Apple Fire, as well as more than 1,800 meals and snacks, and more than 400 health and mental health contacts, said a Red Cross spokeswoman. Most of it was provided through a car window or a computer screen.

New Hanover County in North Carolina made similar preparations when Hurricane Isaias made landfall as a Category 1 storm on August 3. As Isaias approached, the county set up a phone line for people to call if they needed a safe place to go. In the end, only 11 people needed hotel rooms. “Generally, people were able to ride out the storm this time, but it was a good first step to try it out and figure out the pain points,” said McRay, who considered the first trial a success.

Among other things, the Red Cross set up a temporary evacuation point, where evacuees can receive aid without remaining socially distanced in their vehicles. AMERICAN RED CROSS

While response to the Apple Fire and Isaias have shown the promise of non-congregate sheltering, not all states and organizations have been successful procuring hotel space, and some are not sure if they can or how they’ll pay for it if they do. FEMA does not set aside money specifically for emergency hotel rentals, but has said it plans to reimburse state and local governments up to 75 percent of the cost by tapping its $70 billion disaster relief fund. But local governments, already cash-strapped from the coronavirus pandemic, are worried that the promised money won’t be available when the time comes. Those fears likely intensified in mid-August when President Trump issued a memo announcing that his administration plans to siphon off as much as $45 billion of that FEMA disaster money to pay for unemployment benefits.

There are other logistical challenges as well, such as lack of hotel space. “For us, even during normal hurricane seasons, most hotels are at capacity quickly because we have utility companies coming in” to prepare for storm response, said Hal Grieb, the director of emergency management for Alachua County in Northern Florida. What limited hotel capacity is available, Grieb said, could be prioritized for more vulnerable populations, or even people who are already COVID positive.

Serino recommends that local officials get creative in the search for non-congregate sheltering, hotels or otherwise. That includes reaching out to various groups across the region, including and especially those with whom they might not yet have relationships. “We have always used schools, but mostly the bigger spaces [like gyms]. Can we use individual classrooms? Can we use churches? Empty office buildings? Empty warehouses?” he said. “Have you reached out to the largest employers in town? What availabilities do they have? There are so many options that we have to start thinking about.”

In some scenarios, he said, cities might also look at utilizing larger spaces, adapting them the way the Army Corps of Engineers transformed the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York as an alternative care site for patients during the coronavirus outbreak there in April. In a similar way, these large spaces can be divided and segmented with barriers, so families can shelter apart to lessen an outbreak.

In some cases, however, congregate shelters might be unavoidable despite the risks, experts say. If that occurs, these shelters will look and operate much differently than they have in the past. “You're going to have to wear a mask. You're going to have to sleep in a mask. You're going to have to socially distance. We're going to have a lot of hand sanitizer, a lot of hand washing stations. Feeding will not be buffet style—we’ll need individually packaged meals,” Grieb said. “A lot of those things that we took for granted in operating a shelter we have to rethink. Everything we can do to mitigate and lessen exposures is what we have to focus on.”

The first line of defense against the virus will be a set of screening procedures at the door, developed in concert with local and federal health departments. This, too, is more complicated than it first seems. “People don’t come into shelters one by one—sometimes they come in busloads,” said Serino. Rapid COVID-19 testing is not yet widely available, and officials aren’t counting on it to be if a major disaster does strike. Instead, the screening will most likely involve a quick temperature reading and a questionnaire to determine if the person has symptoms or could have been exposed. The Red Cross says it plans to set up a separate isolation care area adjacent to the shelter for evacuees who are COVID positive, or who have a fever or other signs of the virus. This separate sheltering strategy for sick evacuees and other vulnerable populations is one most agencies are adopting.

Despite the best-laid plans, experts concede that there’s no foolproof way to ensure that shelters can be kept virus free, and that there’s a good chance that situations will arise that were not discussed or planned for. That’s why building flexibility and contingencies into existing plans is crucial. One resource to consider is NFPA 1616, Standard on Mass Evacuation, Sheltering, and Re-Entry Programs, which provides detailed guidance for how to develop a shelter maintenance and improvement program to help officials to work through the changes they may need to make based on these new risks.

A significant X-factor in any disaster scenario is how well people in an affected area comply with directives, Serino said. “The public is probably the biggest component in all of this. It’s more important than ever that the public be an asset, not a liability,” he said. Wearing masks, distancing, washing hands, and taking personal responsibility to prepare as a family before the disaster could make the difference between a historic catastrophe or a temporary disruption.

One concern voiced by Serino and others is that large numbers of people will refuse to evacuate because they are scared of the virus. This could increase casualties and put emergency responders in dangerous situations. “It's a real fear that we've seen already over the last five months,” Serino said, noting that even people with serious medical conditions have refused to visit hospitals during the pandemic. “How do we address that fear in folks? How do we do that to convince folks that it's going to be safe?”

Besides shelters, safety officials say they’re most concerned with ensuring that there are enough workers available to respond to a disaster.

When Alan Wallace, the RPI researcher, simulated what a recovery would look like if a Category 3 hurricane hit a mid-sized coastal city during the pandemic, he found that the combination of these specific threats led to more power, water, and waste outages, and dramatically lengthened recovery times. “All of these services—civil infrastructure, public safety, community services—require people to make them operate,” Wallace said. “And a hurricane and a pandemic both take out people.”

It’s not just a matter of the virus making people sick—there’s also a threat of the virus keeping people away who might otherwise have traveled to a disaster site to help, Wallace said. This is especially true of utility workers, who typically travel long distances from other states to prepare ahead of a storm. The effects of this workforce depletion can be staggering. In Wallace’s simulations, losing just 25 percent of the typical recovery workforce resulted in a three-fold increase in the time it took the city to recover.

Emergency managers are also keenly aware that losing key personnel in their EOCs or in the field could have a similarly devastating effect. For essential workers, COVID testing will be required. “We need to go into these critical operations with a clear conscience that we don’t have somebody who’s asymptomatic in our EOC potentially infecting the whole operation,” Grieb said.

But as with everything else concerning COVID, the details get complicated in a hurry. David McIntire, the emergency coordinator for Gainesville, Florida, said that emergency declarations that trigger EOC activation usually occur about 72 hours ahead of a storm. Staff generally use at least some of that time to take care of personal and family needs so they can be focused at work knowing their loved ones are safe. But that’s also time that the city had planned to use to test staff for COVID. “The last thing we want to do is test the whole staff to make sure they’re negative and then have them leave to take care of family preparation and go get infected and bring it into the EOC unexpectedly,” he said.

The New Hanover County, North Carolina emergency operation center during Hurricane Isaias observed mask and social distancing protocols. NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NORTH CAROLINA

In at least one key respect, however, the ongoing pandemic has actually provided many state and local emergency operations a leg up as they enter disaster season. Out of necessity, most agencies have invested in new systems and training to run their EOCs virtually; nearly all of these virtual operations have been activated and running for months. During a major storm or wildfire, these new capabilities will allow EOCs more flexibility, better continuity of operations, and will likely mean fewer people in the room, cutting back on transmission risk, Grieb said.

Although many EOCs have been running almost entirely virtual during the COVID-19 emergency, that likely won’t be possible during a hurricane or other event, which could knock out power and communications. “We’ll probably have to bring the band back together, or at least some of the band” back to the EOC, which has backup power, Grieb said. But in this case, Alachua County is working to make it as safe as possible. Grieb is considering moves such as creating two EOCs—one for the day shift and one for night—to keep the turnover in each low. He is also experimenting with reducing the number of people required to operate the EOC, by calling up only the primary liaison for each area, not the entire staff. Masks, social distancing, and even potentially a wholesale redesign of the space could also be in the works.

“My EOC tables don't move. They're locked because of the wiring,” he said, rolling his eyes. “So now I need to think about fixing that before peak hurricane season, so I can help people social distance.”

Ahead of Hurricane Isaias, New Hanover County took a different approach. “We didn't stay in our traditional EOC room. We actually went over to our new health and human services building, which has a much bigger footprint,” McRay said. The bigger space allowed emergency staff to spread out almost 10 feet apart, but also “to better support the health department partners in their building, where their stuff is.”


Few if any agencies voluntarily set out at the start of the year to rethink every aspect of their operations, but a lot of the work they’ve done since the beginning of 2020 has paid off far beyond just preparing for COVID, officials say.

“Every disaster is unique, but at the same time there are consistent themes that emerge that we can apply going forward. And it’s usually not just one thing but a multitude of things,” Serino said. “I think COVID is pushing emergency management to a whole new level, out of necessity. We’ve learned so much these last five months, and I think we'll see emergency management be vastly different going forward because of it.”

Some of the gains that have occurred during COVID include a wealth of new partnerships and capabilities, from new shelter options to more flexible and adaptable operations. Most of this learning has come organically as emergency managers struggled to solve each new pressing problem. “By just focusing on meeting the needs of today, whatever they are, wherever they are, we’re building a stronger foundation of training and readiness,” Beckman said.

For instance, when the Red Cross worked to change its mass sheltering strategy from congregate to non-congregate, it emerged with several new benefits besides a bigger inventory of hotel rooms. To make it all work, the organization also had to figure out how to effectively provide services to evacuees now that they’d be sheltered across the region, not in one centralized location. It also had to find a way, in the middle of a pandemic, to quickly train its broad network of staff and volunteers on how run and manage this new shelter strategy.

Both of these issues led the Red Cross to invest in and expand its virtual capabilities. For training, the organization designed a virtual, web-based system to replace most of its traditional in-person classes. It also set up a virtual network of aid workers, enabling services like mental health counseling and medical checkups to be done via computer screen, with the doctors able to talk to storm or fire victims from the other side of the country.

The new capabilities achieved their objectives but have also proved valuable in other ways, resulting in a Red Cross that is nimbler and more adaptable going forward, Beckman said.

“As we've learned new things about this virus, about what works and ways to mitigate it, we've been able to push those remote trainings to the workforce quickly,” he said. And although the pandemic has cut down the number of aid workers staffing disaster sites, “we have much more reach-back capacity than we had before, and that allows us to scale more flexibly,” he said. “If the number of people who need our health services increases rapidly, now we have an entire team of people virtually across the country ready to go. If people need help finding services, we can support them much more quickly with more people doing online research to get them the recovery resources they need.”

Simply being forced to reimagine emergency sheltering options will help her county improve over what it had pre-COVID, McRay said. “It’s made us more aware of basic hygiene stuff,” she said, “and that there's not really so much wrong with putting a little bit of extra space between people, especially given the stress that comes along with having to pick up and go to an emergency shelter.”

Other progress made since the start of the pandemic is less visible but could prove just as important over time, well after the pandemic is over. One notable example is strengthened community partnerships. Before the pandemic, for instance, few local emergency agencies had close relationships with public health departments, Serino said. After months of coordination on pandemic response, that’s changed dramatically in most cities. “When we opened our emergency operation center in March it was to support the health department, and that was a relatively new thing for us when you consider that usually emergency management is built to support the public safety piece,” McRay said.

Grieb believes the COVID crisis has also increased emergency management’s visibility overall—especially with state and local governments—providing a clear demonstration of the profession’s value, which in turn will lead to growth in the relatively young profession. “It makes me really happy that, both here in Florida and nationally, I'm noticing a lot of new emergency management positions being posted,” said Grieb, who himself was hired only last June.

There will be no shortage of work ahead. As of press time, Hurricane Laura, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the US, is plowing north through Louisiana and leaving yet untold destruction in its wake. Meanwhile, California is again battling a series of historic wildfires, which as of this writing have burned through 1.4 million acres and displaced tens of thousands of people. All of this as coronavirus continues to pose a significant threat. As of August 27, the US has had close to 6 million confirmed cases, with fire-struck California leading the way with 690,000 cases, including 90,000 new cases over the previous two weeks.

Asked to predict back in early August how the rest of the 2020 disaster season might play out, Serino, a self-described optimist, acknowledged that the months ahead will be “a huge challenge,” and “something that we haven't done before.”

He also said he had “almost more hope than ever” looking forward. “In our worst days,” he added, “is when the people in public safety, emergency management, and health do their best work.” 


JESSE ROMAN is associate editor of NFPA JournalTop photograph: AP/WIDEWORLD