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Coronacanes and Coronafires

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Coronacanes and Coronafires

The Coronavirus pandemic raises glaring risks for the 2020 fire and hurricane seasons. This is especially true as the virus is now raging in parts of the country where fires and hurricanes strike: Arizona and California for fires and Florida, Texas, the Carolinas, Louisiana, and Alabama for hurricanes. With the virus surging, how can you safely handle the evacuation of large communities with social distancing and an emphasis on hygiene and a sanitary environment? More specifically, if evacuation is mandatory, can shelters safely house large populations, including the elderly and people with underlying health issues, without causing mass COVID infection? How will hospitals, already overrun with COVID patients, deal with those injured from fires and storms? How will firefighters combat fires if large numbers of them have been exposed to COVID? There is ongoing planning at this time at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) about how to manage such an evacuation of scale during the COVID pandemic and this will situation will certainly evolve during the course of the semester as the pandemic and fire and hurricane seasons play out.

Fire and hurricane shelters are traditionally places like school gyms crammed with cots. It will be impossible to practice social distancing and the type of hygiene required to manage COVID in such an environment. It would be easy to envision a typical shelter becoming a “super-spreader” environment where one or a few infected people shed the virus and infect dozens of others. Thus local governments have been planning to expand the range of shelter options to include hotels and large government buildings so that evacuees aren’t crammed together in tight spaces. Traditional shelters will have to be redesigned so people are further apart. In the case of an evacuation, sanitation will be critical, mask-wearing will certainly be mandatory and evacuees will be urged to use hand sanitizer and wipes and to wash their hands frequently.

Hurricanes specifically can hinder the everyday operation of hospitals. During Katrina, several hospitals in New Orleans were cut off by flood waters and supplies and personnel could not reach them, nor could the sick and injured. Backup power supplies were destroyed by floodwaters. The suffering at several hospitals was absolutely terrible. Even though there have been significant improvements in infrastructure and preparation since Katrina, and the types of failures experienced in that storm will hopefully never happen again, any storm could make hospital operations already stressed by COVID much more dire.

FEMA has been taking the lead in managing the federal government’s response to the Coronavirus epidemic including overseeing the distribution of PPE and supplies. The agency could now face the dual task of continuing to lead COVID, with the threat of a surge of the virus in the fall, as well as the response to one or more hurricanes and to what looks an intense fire season. Such a scenario could easily overwhelm the agency, thus it has opened a second facility to help manage dual emergencies and expanded its support staff and leadership teams.

Please stay tuned, this is obviously a very fluid issue that will likely evolve during the course of the semester as storms arrive and the COVID situation changes.