Coastal Processes, Hazards, and Society

Coronacanes: Hurricane Preparation in the COVID-19 Era


Coronacanes: Hurricane Preparation in the COVID-19 Era

The Coronavirus pandemic raises glaring risks for hurricane season. With the virus still spreading, 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? 

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 can hinder the everyday operation of hospitals. During Katrina, several hospitals in New Orleans were cut off by floodwaters, 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.