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COVID-19 Makes a Hurricane Season Even More Complicated

Dual challenges affect lower-income citizens disproportionately, Duke experts say

Duke experts: Andrew Godfrey, Lisa Campbell, Cameron Wolfe and Rett Newton.
Duke experts: Andrew Godfrey, Lisa Campbell, Cameron Wolfe and Rett Newton.

COVID-19 is a significant complicating factor for coastal residents gearing up for what is expected to be a difficult hurricane season, four Duke experts said Wednesday.

Speaking to reporters in a virtual media briefing, the experts spoke of the trickiness of planning evacuations while also protecting people from the deadly virus.


Here are excerpts from the conversation:


Lisa Campbell, marine affairs professor

“Some people are unlikely to leave under any circumstances. For those people I think the pandemic is just another reason to stay put. But when we turn to people who are actively making a decision about whether to leave, we find there are multiple considerations they make.

“There are questions of economics, how people make their livings. How secure that living is and how tied it is to their property.”

“There’s a fear of getting stuck. There are questions of pets. There are decisions about relatives. In small, rural places … those tight social networks of families that really determine what people do.”

“That really depends on where you’re going and how you’re getting there. If you rely on shelters and buses provided by the county to get you there, this can be really challenging for social distancing.”

“Sheltering, let’s face it, is not very enjoyable under the best of circumstances. When we add onto that the fear of contracting COVID-19, you can see how that makes the decision difficult.”



Rett Newton, Beaufort, N.C. mayor

“It really is a big risk-management scenario. And then you put COVID-19 on top of it, that just complicates things. Making the call for mandatory evacuation is always a difficult decision. In this case in Carteret County, if we were going to make that decision, they were going to open up three different shelters. Typically they’d open up one, but you’d have one as a normal shelter with social distancing, another shelter that would handle people with COVID-19, and then a third one would be for vulnerable citizens.”

“It certainly has added to our thought process.”



Andrew Godfrey, emergency medicine specialist

“One of the main things we’re worried about … in terms of this pandemic and our hurricane response is our ability to provide shelter and care for patients who require some kind of assistance during a hurricane.”

“Ensuring that families, patients have the proper equipment they need in their hurricane prep packages. So, incorporating PPE, hand sanitizers, things like that into the personal supplies they’re stocking at home.”


Cameron Wolfe, infectious disease specialist

“One of the ways most hospitals and townships and jurisdictions have strategized their testing is to make it available to the public with drive-through tents. That doesn’t operationally make sense if you’re also talking about evacuations.”

“Support infrastructure around laboratories and delays in test turnaround become a real practical consideration.”

“We have to be very sensitive to the fact that this virus has quite a long lag time before someone would become symptomatic. Even if an evacuation happens on a particular weekend, we need to be very sensitive that the COVID implications won’t be felt for a week or two weeks down the road. We have to be pretty astute about that sort of drawn-out time delay. The implications go far beyond the actual weather event.”



Lisa Campbell

“One of the issues with waiting until the last minute – a mandatory evacuation order does not mean everyone leaves. So there is that complication.”

“From some places on the coast, it’s actually quite difficult to get everybody out in a short period of time because of transportation networks. We have really one highway for most of the way to get us out. So that’s an additional complication that can dissuade people from leaving, if they think they’re going to sit on Highway 70 for a couple hours on a Friday afternoon.”


Rett Newton

“The decision to declare a mandatory evacuation – COVID-19 is really not going to play much into that. If we’re getting a (serious storm), we need to evacuate. I know our emergency managers have taken into account COVID-19. In this case, you’re risking peoples’ lives to stick around.”

“Some people will stay. They just will, for 50 different reasons.”

“My goal is to get as much information to the community as I possibly can, so they have to make their personal decisions.”



Cameron Wolfe

“It depends on what your state or your region’s spread is at that time. Clearly, our risk in North Carolina is a little less than what it would have been a month ago. If you’re listening to this in Florida, your risk may be a little more. It depends on how much COVID you have in your community at the time. It depends on where people are evacuating from, and, a little bit, where they’re evacuating to.”

“You need to be very clear in terms of understanding where people are coming into a shelter from, and where they’re going afterwards. It will have implications.”

“I don’t see it as an impossibility to actually have portable testing facilities within a shelter facility.”

“It does require forethought from a lab capability point of view, but that can become an option to actually counteract disadvantages. But you’ve got to be prepared from the outset to contact trace afterwards.”



Rett Newton

“The socioeconomic divide plays heavily in this. We knew this divide existed. Hurricane Florence exposed it. Hurricane Dorian widened it. And this pandemic has deepened this socioeconomic divide.”

“There’s an astounding amount of hunger here.”

“There are a lot of different variables here, but please don’t discount the importance of that socioeconomic divide in these decisions.”


Lisa Campbell

“One of the things we have to think about is how the impacts of COVID on the economy are going to intersect with evacuation and questions of where people will go.”

“There’s a layering of the kind of vulnerability people have to storms, to COVID and to the economic consequences of that, that are really going to make it particularly challenging for some people in ways that other people will still be able to work around.”



Andrew Godfrey

“We recommend that every family have an emergency preparedness kit. Food, water, batteries, light sources, things like that.”

“The biggest additions this year are the PPE that are required to go out in public. People should also consider putting masks into their prep kits so if they do have to go to a hotel, if they do have to go to a shelter, if they do have to go stay with family that they have not been interacting with, they have adequate supplies of masks to see them through that period. And also making sure there’s hand soap, dish soap, hand sanitizer, things like that so basic hygiene can continue to be followed while water may not be available.”

Rett Newton

“For those staying behind, they need to consider being without power for 7-10 days as we did after Hurricane Florence. They have to make sure they have plenty of food. Fuel is important as well. So for those people who choose to stay, and we know there will be people, they have to be able to sustain for a long period of time, without power, without resources like grocery stores.”



Lisa Campbell

“Schools made a real effort after (Hurricane) Florence to contact families, to make sure they’re okay, to make sure kids had food. They were among the front lines of responders here who could really reach out through kids in the schools to figure out where people were and how they were doing. COVID will challenge that role.”



Rett Newton

“(As mayor), the number one thing I need is information. I am not given the information at a municipal level on COVID-19 cases. It is trapped at the county, so since we’ve been defending against COVID in March, we have had to depend on rumors. I have to have information. We have to get that information at the ground level so we can take the appropriate actions.”


Lisa Campbell

“Some of the mental health and emotional burdens of living in a hurricane-prone place. Hurricane Florence really took it out of people and then Dorian hit the next year. When we talk to people in community meetings and through our work, it’s very powerful, emotional unburdening of their experiences. The layering of COVID on top of this really has got people at their wit’s end in terms of trying to anticipate uncertainty and consequence. I think in schools and for employers, just being attentive to the level of stress people are dealing with.”


Cameron Wolfe

“Information clarity is such an important thing. For our response teams, thinking about ways of incorporating COVID-specific level care in planning for the logistics. PPE, mobile testing capability, and clear lines of communication.”


Andrew Godfrey

“I would like to encourage individuals to have an emergency preparedness kit available. Think now, while the sun is shining, while things aren’t super crazy, what their plan would be if are ordered to evacuate or have to leave. Try to pre-plan a little bit for what their personal plan would be. I would encourage everybody to visit for some tips and items on how to be prepared.


Meet the experts:

Lisa Campbell
Lisa Campbell is a professor of marine affairs and policy at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. She studies community resilience, disaster response and the relationship between environmental policy and socioeconomic development.

Andrew Godfrey
Dr. Andrew Godfrey is an emergency medicine specialist at Duke Health and a medical instructor in the Department of Surgery at the Duke University School of Medicine. He has been involved in disaster response before the pandemic and since it began.

Rett Newton
Rett Newton is mayor of Beaufort, North Carolina, a coastal town frequently struck by hurricanes and home to the Duke Marine Lab, where he is a Ph.D. student in the Marine Science and Conservation doctoral program.

Cameron Wolfe
Dr. Cameron Wolfe is an infectious disease specialist at Duke Health and an associate professor at the Duke University School of Medicine. His areas of study include infectious diseases and biological and emergency preparedness for hospital systems.