An active hurricane season mixed with a global pandemic sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Emergency management agencies and community leaders across the Atlantic coast are preparing now to handle an especially challenging hurricane season. The pandemic complicates even the most common practices of disaster response and management.
These challenges were discussed Thursday during a virtual conference hosted by the Georgia Institute of Technology and Chatham County Emergency Management. The “Hurricane Preparedness During a Pandemic” day-long conference covered a wide array of issues, including climate change research, crisis communication, hurricane planning, recovery efforts and emergency sheltering during a pandemic.
“After months of pandemic preparedness and response, now we’re getting into the heart of hurricane season, and that’s what this conference is really all about,” said Russ Clark, a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech’s Savannah campus.
The conference featured nearly 40 presenters and served more than 200 registered attendees.
Coastal community leaders in Florida, Georgia and up the coast are keeping a close eye on Tropical Storm Isaias, which had a projected path in an eastward direction Thursday but could reach the Golden Isles by Sunday evening or Monday morning.
COVID-19 creates unique challenges this year and requires emergency management officials to reconsider all their usual hurricane response protocols. Accessible communication with residents and effective preparation becomes even more crucial this year.
“With COVID, we’re looking at how do we handle two disasters simultaneously?” said Dennis Jones, Chatham County Emergency Management.
Chatham County, like Glynn, prioritizes sheltering residents outside of the county, which means evacuating people and sheltering them by forming partnerships with other communities.
Risk of spreading COVID-19 will limit the number of people who can shelter in one place, Jones said.
Normally Chatham County would send 2,500 people to shelter in one community away from the coast. This year, if an evacuation is required, smaller groups of evacuees may have to travel to several different locations.
Then it becomes a logistics challenge of tracking where everybody is, making sure the resources are available and bringing all evacuees back home, Jones said.
Community leaders are also concerned that people will be less likely to leave when evacuation orders are issued. Government leaders have for months now instructed residents to stay socially distanced and remain home as often as possible.
Under an evacuation order, they may be asking people to do the opposite.
“We know more people are going to be inclined to stay home,” said Kevin Kalbaugh, a meteorologist and planner for North Carolina Emergency Management.
Vulnerable populations, like minority families, low-income residents and people with health issues, have been especially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. And these are the same groups that are most severely impacted by storms each year due to the cost of evacuation, expensive home damage, loss of wages and more.
Because of the financial toll of the pandemic, many may not be able to afford to evacuate, Kalbaugh said.
These are challenges emergency leaders are pondering and preparing for now, but entire communities will be impacted by how well these plans are rolled out in the event of a hurricane or tropical storm.
“We are in a new and ever changing time as we face a hurricane season that’s not only predicted to be a busy one but that’s also occurring in conjunction with a worldwide pandemic,” Jones said. “It creates some unique challenges for us for this year.”