Prepping for Dual Disasters of COVID and Extreme Weather Events

September 22, 2020|12:52 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

In a year of unprecedented events, these past few months have already shown that they do not exist in a vacuum. While the country continues to respond and cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, many extreme weather events have already occurred and will continue for the next several months. Some have been widely publicized, like Hurricanes Isaias, Laura, and Sally, and the wildfires along the Pacific Coast. Other less publicized events have been equally devastating to the impacted communities. These include the Derecho in Iowa, wildfires across the Mountain West, heat and drought throughout the Midwest, and earlier than anticipated frosts, freezes, and snowstorms. There are also additional infectious disease challenges including the vector-borne Eastern Equine Encephalopathy in the Midwest and the looming flu season. Responding to these events in the current circumstances presents unique challenges to responders and communities, and due to the continued changes to our environment, we will have longer hurricane seasons and longer wildfire seasons in the future.

Emergencies are always impacted by the context in which they occur. In 2017, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria (three of the five costliest hurricanes in U.S. history) ravaged Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands in just a few weeks. The drain on resources and capabilities of the response system in that period lessened the overall response to each of the storms. Responding to these disasters now will be more difficult than ever for multiple reasons. There are resource constraints, social distancing limitations for sheltering, and significant responder fatigue resulting from having been in a response mode for most of the year.

Public health agencies are facing considerably depleted resources, supplies, and funds since they’ve been responding to the COVID-19 pandemic all year. State caches of materiel may now be diminished at a time when they are needed to respond to other events. Additionally, the economic downturn accompanying the COVID-19 response will continue to limit a jurisdiction’s ability to sufficiently resource a response. Similarly, the federal response system has been challenged in ways not previously anticipated. The response community will need to be very “forward leaning” and proactive in planning and even rationing of resources.

Many of the tools at a community’s disposal during an emergency response may not be fully available during this pandemic. Specifically, sheltering and other congregate care facilities do not lend themselves to social distancing or reduced capacity necessary to prevent spread of infection. Other non-congregate care facilities—such as unused or underused living and commercial facilities—may need to be converted to temporary shelters that can allow separation from potentially infected persons, while allowing families to shelter together. Unfortunately, this also reduces the inventory of sheltering for responders. These procedures often require evacuees to be transported across further distances. Providing medical care can also be difficult while ensuring social distancing. To the extent possible, telemedicine and other remote methods to provide medical care should be considered. Although that can also present challenges in areas experiencing rolling emergency power shutdowns.

Despite these significant challenges, there are things we can do individually and collectively. Individuals need to be able to provide care to themselves and their households in an emergency before the arrival of emergency responders. The most prepared individuals will have:

—Learned lifesaving skills, such as first-aid and CPR.

—Assembled two kits of emergency supplies and a one-month supply of prescription medication:

  • Stay-at-home kit (2 weeks of emergency supplies).
  • Evacuation kit (3 days of supplies in a “go bag”).
  • 1-month supply of prescription medication, as well as over-the-counter medications like cough suppressants and fever reducing drugs and medical supplies or equipment.

We also need to think in terms of who we can help in an emergency. Take a look around and think of the neighbors that you would check on in an emergency because of their unique needs. Response agencies are stretched to the limit, their staff are fatigued, and morale may be low as they transition from one response to another. Grace, patience, and compassion will go a long way to improve the quality and success of every emergency response.


Gerrit Bakker is the senior director of public health preparedness at ASTHO