This Atlantic hurricane season, Americans along the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast—where COVID-19 cases continue to spike—are concerned about how hurricane response may be complicated by and compound the COVID-19 crisis. On July 1, the Duke University Initiative for Science & Society gathered three disaster preparedness experts to discuss the challenges of responding to hurricanes in the midst of the pandemic.
Communities face “compounding and cascading risks”
Elizabeth Albright (Ph.D. ’09) of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment urged the audience to remember that “many communities along the Atlantic coast, … Gulf Coast, and Puerto Rico are still recovering from past hurricanes,” and “low wealth communities and communities of color” already feel the effects of hurricanes more acutely than others.
So “[w]e have a system of compounding and cascading risks to think about and address.… The risks of hurricanes will magnify risks of COVID and vice versa, with more significant impacts on communities of color and under-resourced communities.”
Resource constraints loom large
Lauren Sauer, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins, noted that the public health workforce “would normally be deep in the throes of hurricane preparedness,” but is instead tied up responding to COVID-19. So, she says, “staffing a potential regional response to a hurricane or any other weather event that we see coming in the next few months here is going to be a huge challenge, and we have to start thinking about it now.”
Mark Abkowitz of Vanderbilt University’s School of Engineering added, “This also extends to a supply chain that may be crippled by a lack of available hurricane response resources,” including “insufficient manpower, equipment, food, and water.”
At the same time, Sauer said COVID-19 “requires an adaptation to literally all of our health care and public health response planning activities for hurricane season.” Once evacuees reach shelters, officials will need specific protocols to combat COVID-19.
Sauer added that we have “dealt with other infectious diseases in shelter settings before.” So “putting up physical barriers, changing HVAC systems, possible outdoor shelters in spaces that aren’t affected by weather. All of these things are practical approaches” at our disposal.
"What the hygiene looks like, what the water and sanitation looks like, how we will manage testing of the patients,” she says, "remains to be seen for a lot of these sites.”
Preparedness and pro-active community-based planning
“We need to get out of this reactive disaster response framework,” Albright said, and “get into a space of pre-disaster planning and risk mitigation.” Abkowitz added: “[I]f there’s a silver lining to this, it’s that COVID’s happening to everybody.… I don’t think you can hide [from] why preparation is so important at this point.”
Accompanying the event, Duke Science & Society released a policy brief on hurricane response in the time of COVID-19, authored by Science & Society policy analyst and panel moderator Andrew Pericak (M.E.M. ’16).