Emergency response managers have never been faced with the double challenge of evacuating and sheltering people during a major hurricane while simultaneously dealing with a pandemic, but this is what could happen during the next month as the 2020 hurricane season reaches its peak.
To prepare for such an event, Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett called together experts in emergency management “to harvest expertise” and share information on what other coastal jurisdictions are doing to help vulnerable populations find means of sheltering safely.
The online panel discussion was presented in a webinar Friday through the Bipartisan Policy Center and is now available on the center’s YouTube Channel. (See link below ad)
Plaskett outlined the concerns at the beginning of the webinar.
“FEMA is the lead federal agency for coordinating preparation, prevention, mitigation and response and recovery from our disasters, including the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but in recent years the agency has struggled to manage the severity of multiple disasters due in part to climate change,” she said.
The immediate issue facing disaster managers is how to house potentially thousands of people during a storm while maintaining safety precautions critical for halting the spread of COVID-19. More than 160,000 Americans have already lost their lives because of the pandemic, Plaskett said.
Panelists agreed that “congregant” sheltering, the model used before the pandemic, simply won’t work. Congregant sheltering refers to the relocation of masses of people to large, indoor locations such as arenas and empty “big box” stores. In the Virgin Islands, the public is typically directed to school cafeterias and gyms.
The risk of spreading coronavirus under crowded conditions is too great when social distancing and other safety guidelines cannot be followed.
The economic effects of the pandemic are further complicating the situation. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs since the outbreak of COVID-19. People who go to shelters are often those who don’t have secure housing, who don’t have insurance and who don’t have extra funds to stock up on food and supplies. Panelists agreed that those who are economically vulnerable are also at greater risk of becoming sick with the virus.
For this reason, FEMA is recommending a shift from “congregant” housing to “transitional” sheltering programs and is urging state, local and tribal authorities to take on the responsibility of identifying solutions.
According to a recent article in the V.I. Source, “The Virgin Islands Department of Human Services holds the responsibility for keeping residents safe who have no other alternative than to seek public shelters during a hurricane. Human Services Commissioner Kimberley Causey-Gomez said due to COVID-19 and all the shelters being ‘compromised’ in 2017, a hybrid approach is being used in 2020 – fewer large shelters and more individual rooms.”
Causey-Gomez did not specify where people seeking shelter provided by the government should go but said they would be notified when a storm approaches.
In North Carolina, residents are being told to prepare evacuation readiness kits and try to find a place to shelter with friends or family at the closest distance possible, according to Mike Sprayberry, director of the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management.
Residents who don’t have that option will be directed to reception centers where they will register for services; from there they will be sent to hotels where they can wait out the storm in separate rooms. The American Red Cross is coordinating food distribution at the hotels.
Sprayberry said this plan worked well during Hurricane Isaias, which passed through the territory as a tropical storm and reached North Carolina on Aug. 4, but that storm was a “small event.”
Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, agreed that Isaias was “a beta test of non-congregant sheltering.” For that storm, his agency reserved blocks of rooms in hotels to serve as shelters in three counties. Moskowitz said the “big lesson” he learned was to start negotiations with hotels earlier, so he wasn’t competing with power companies and other entities seeking housing for teams of recovery personnel.
Moskowitz also said it was important to communicate clearly with the public about when it is necessary to evacuate.
“Mixed messages are confusing. Tracks of storms change constantly; you can’t assume people are always paying attention. It’s our job to communicate if it’s not safe, they must leave,” he said.
Moskowitz said his state agency sends out 80 pages of guidelines to county and local authorities charged with disaster response in Florida. Sprayberry said he sends out daily emails to emergency managers in North Carolina with encouraging messages.
“I want to let people know they’re not alone,” he said.
Brock Long, who served as FEMA administrator from 2017 to 2019, commended “the golden-hearted people” who work at the agency, some who have been deployed nonstop since 2017 when, within a month, Hurricane Harvey flooded Texas and then hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and other locations before heading to the eastern seaboard.
Long said in his time as head of the agency, FEMA responded to 220 disasters, one every three days on average during his tenure. Recovery funds spent during his term exceeded funding spent in the nine previous FEMA administrations.
Long said Congress must act to redefine FEMA’s mission. The Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act turned FEMA into the nation’s “911,” and there needs to be a shift to action on state and local levels, as well as the private sector.
“The United States has the best emergency management across the globe, but there are too many rules and laws that keep us from responding quicker. We have to figure out how to streamline,” Long said.
Layers of bureaucracy cause delays in critical funding, and “people want to punch FEMA in the mouth,” Long said. Establishing supply chains in the private sector before a disaster occurs would do a lot to speed up the process, but “we haven’t had the conversations,” he said.
On Aug. 4, FEMA announced it was accepting applications for its Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Program, a grants program to help communities fund pre-disaster mitigation projects. Long said the program was a good beginning but current funding for the program seems too low.
“We have to assure that communications and health and medical systems don’t go down,” he said.
Planning is just one aspect of the challenges facing disaster managers in 2020. Panelists agreed that federal and state agencies will need to step up with more funding for recovery following a disaster because of the pandemic’s continuing economic impacts.