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Natural Disasters Force Tough Choices During Pandemic

As hurricane season nears and severe weather looms, authorities are grappling with the realities of responding to a natural disaster mid-pandemic.

As of Monday, more than 18 people were killed after tornadoes struck a wide swath of the U.S. South on 12 April. Since Sunday, 41 tornadoes were reported in the region. The governors of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama each declared states of emergency to help recover from the damage.

According to NBC News, 40 million people on the Eastern seaboard of the United States are at risk today from severe storms. In Louisiana, Governor John Bel Edwards asked residents to stay home to protect them from the severe weather and the coronavirus pandemic, which now has more than 20,000 cases in the state.

According to a 22 March National Weather Service, Birmingham, statement: “The decision to seek shelter in a community storm shelter is certainly made more difficult by the consideration for COVID-19, and each individual will need to make an educated decision on where and when to shelter from a tornado.” The statement recommended residents prioritize protecting themselves from an imminent tornado first and worry about the virus afterward.

But tornadoes are hardly the only natural disaster federal forecasters are concerned over. According to NPR, forecasters warn that 2020 could see major to moderate flooding in 23 states, a vicious hurricane season, and a longer fire season. Emergency responders are stretched thin responding to the pandemic, and traditional disaster strategies—including evacuation shelters, food assistance, and bringing aid workers in from other regions—may be impractical or dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some regions—including a coalition of leaders along the Mississippi River—are proactively working to procure personal protective equipment that could be distributed mid-disaster. Volunteers are preparing to video chat with clients when advising them during a crisis. Federal agencies and aid organizations are striving to foster local volunteer workforces, instead of relying on centralized pools of volunteers who can be sent cross-country. The American Red Cross is currently recruiting volunteers and offering online training.

According to The Associated Press, the U.S. Forest Service canceled its planned seasonal burns, which aim to curtail uncontrolled wildfires. The firefighters who typically come to assist each year from other countries may be unable to travel, and the camps that house thousands of firefighters participating in the burns could cause the virus to spread.

But the main challenge emergency officials are concerned about is emergency shelters and evacuations, NPR reports. In the event of a major hurricane, wildfire, or earthquake, sheltering in place becomes impossible, and large-scale group shelters would likely violate social distancing recommendations.

Instead, officials are seeking alternative accommodations, such as hotel rooms and college dormitories; meals would need to be delivered instead of offered in a buffet line.

In Japan, which is prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, officials are debating how to spread out evacuees and keep them safe mid-pandemic, including using cardboard beds and partitions to separate them within emergency shelters, AP reports.

How is your organization preparing to respond to a natural disaster during the coronavirus pandemic? Share your story on ASIS Connects or email us at [email protected].

For more pandemic resources and analysis, visit the ASIS International Disease Outbreak: Security Resources page.