Each year, June 1 is the start of hurricane season in the United States, and each year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issues their forecast for the upcoming season. 2020 is proving to be a much different year when it comes to planning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The problem is that the standard guidelines for hurricane preparedness conflict with the current guidance given to reduce and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
NOAA's Climate Prediction Center 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook forecasts a 60% chance of an above-normal season, a 30% chance of a near-normal season, and only a 10% chance of a below-normal season, which extends from June 1 to November 30. This year's forecasted prediction is a likely range of 13 to 19 named storms (winds 39 mph or higher), of these 6 to 10 could become hurricanes (winds 74 mph or higher), including 3 to 6 major hurricanes (winds 111 mph or higher).
Focusing in the southeast area of the US, which has seen cases spike over the past several weeks, a powerful storm could uproot tens of thousands of people at a time when corona virus infections and deaths are soaring through the region. Shelters such as school gyms, churches, large stadiums or convention centers, could become hot spots if an area needs to use those during an evacuation. The American Red Cross intends to adhere to newly updated guidelines based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's social distancing standards, potentially cutting shelter capacity by 50% or more.
FEMA, which supervises the American Red Cross shelters, is currently exploring options to handle overflow evacuees from shelters. One of the options discussed is the use of hotels left vacant due to the economic downturn. Still, the determination to incorporate these hotels has been a challenge for emergency managers.
Even as hospitals are being overrun with COVID-19 patients, they must prepare for hurricane season. As we wrote in 2018, some questions to ask are:
- What kind of communication equipment will be available to us?
- Do we have a plan for an incident comment center? Where is it?
- How often do we test emergency communications?
- Are our backup systems outside our area?
- How long will it take to get the backup systems up and running after a disaster?
- Do you have an evacuation plan? Did you coordinate with the city, town, and county?
- How many days worth of supplies do you have on hand?
As the country continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are faced with additional obstacles to ensure our population's safety. First, citizens need to follow the safety guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Second, it is the responsibility of FEMA, the American Red Cross, and state and local governments to ensure that if a major storm hits, that residents in those areas are safe from both the storm and COVID-19.
Hospitals need to care for their patients, both COVID-19 related and not, but also make sure that they are preparing for potential storms. Right now, we as a society face a multitude of issues, but by working together, everyone can stay safe.