Planning for a Natural Disaster Amid a Pandemic: Is Your Facility Ready?

The country is still in the throws of a deadly pandemic, but mother nature isn’t known for her patience. Hurricane season for the Gulf of Mexico began on June 1st and lasts until November 30th. Scientists believe this season could be unusually active, thanks to climate change, rising sea levels, and warmer oceans. Major storms could wreak havoc on southern states like Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, and the Carolinas in the months to come.

Unfortunately, all these states are currently dealing with massive outbreaks of the coronavirus, and it’s not clear what they will do in the event of an emergency. From floods to powerful hurricanes and dangerous wildfires, these kinds of events uproot large sections of local populations, but officials need to decide where all these people will go if they no longer have shelter.

Learn more about what it takes to plan for a disaster amid a pandemic.

The Need for Temporary Housing

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is working on updating its disaster response guidelines for 2020. COVID-19 has upended the status quo. It is no longer considered safe to have large groups gather in stadiums, arenas, and other open public spaces. Those seeking shelter will need to go to smaller, more private areas until the storm subsides, especially if they are over the age of 65 or have an underlying health condition.

The agency released its “COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance for the 2020 Hurricane Season” back in May, but local emergency management officials are still having trouble adhering to these new guidelines while coming up with a feasible solution for their local community.

FEMA says it plans to adhere to the CDC’s social distancing guidelines for those seeking shelter during a major storm. This means that occupancy rates for shelters will be limited to just 60%.

So, where are all these other people going to go?

Local officials should rely on hotel rooms and dormitories instead of large public spaces. With some schools out of session and many hotels left vacant, this may work to some communities’ advantage. Florida has already built a network of hotels for those recuperating from the virus, but it’s not clear how the state will assign rooms or what happens if they reach capacity.

Things look different in Alabama, which is also in the middle of a deadly breakout. The state says it doesn’t plan on using hotels at all. Residents haven’t been wearing face masks or practicing social distancing, which makes it difficult to keep people safe during evacuation. Schools and hotels tend to be much smaller than those in other states, which could force people into tight spaces.

However, the CDC maintains that hotels are “ideal” for a number of reasons. They have great ventilation, private bathrooms, and they are wheelchair accessible. However, some cities say the opposite. Houston, for example, says the city doesn’t own these hotels and has little authority over them. These businesses also have the right to turn people away if they have tested positive for the virus.

Who’s going to pay for these hotels?

FEMA says it has set up a $80 billion natural disaster relief reimbursement program for states dealing with natural disasters, but that means that many states will likely have to pay for these rooms upfront, which may be tough with state budgets already strapped for cash.

Many companies will also have trouble reopening after a major storm, especially after months of limited economic activity. They will need to pay for a range of services, including cleaning, mold removal, and water damage restoration. Emergency clean up crews like ATI Restoration will likely be in high demand.

Who’s Most Vulnerable?

When preparing for a natural disaster, it’s important to think about who typically seeks shelter during a storm. Elderly and low-income individuals tend to be the most likely to leave their homes in the event of a natural disaster. They may lack access to sustainable housing, forcing them to flee.

However, these individuals also tend to be most at risk of COVID-19, including essential workers and nursing home residents. Many of those seeking shelter may have already been exposed to the virus without their knowledge, while others may be at risk of severe illness.

Experts predict that more people will look for shelter this year compared to years past. This is due to the economic fallout of the pandemic. Millions remain unemployed with little savings in the bank.

Communities should focus on housing and protecting these individuals as hurricane season stretches on.

It all comes down to communication and resources. Local officials need to have a system in place that tells people where to go when seeking shelter. Florida is using a tool that connects locals to over 500 participating hotels, and that number could reach 1,000 in the coming months. If a local hotel or school reaches capacity, the tool will automatically reroute users to a new destination. As a worst-case scenario, the state says around 906,000 people could seek shelter. They have the resources to house just over a million people, but with social distancing, that number goes down to 340,000.

Emergency preparedness managers should start making arrangements as soon as possible before the first storm arrives. This includes coordinating with local officials, tracking evacuation trends, and reaching out to those most in need.

Make sure your facility has a plan in place for responding to a natural disaster. Use these resources to prepare for the worst today.

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