How the COVID-19 pandemic will affect hurricane disaster planning

Darwin Brandis/iStockBy EDEN DAVID, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Hurricane season is approaching, and this year's may present unique challenges because of COVID-19.

"It's another heavy lift to think about a second kind of disaster, when we're all dealing with the pandemic," Vivi Siegel, senior health communication specialist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Environmental Health Science and Practice, said in a recent virtual briefing.

With the pandemic forcing families to stay home and avoid gatherings, a strong hurricane could require them to consider the very opposite: evacuate and find new shelter.

To make matters worse, forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict there's a 60% chance of an above-normal season, with 13 to 19 named storms, from June 1 to Nov. 30.

"We are having a pandemic -- everyone's lives look very different this year than they did last year. We need to acknowledge that this is a lot harder than usual," Siegel said. "We want people to prepare for hurricanes, but we want them to do it in a way that is protecting themselves and others from COVID-19."

Basic infrastructure is already buckling under the weight of the pandemic. Government employees are overworked, emergency response teams are strained and many others feel overwhelmed and anxious. Creating a disaster preparedness plan -- a stocked "go kit," knowing evacuation routes, where to seek shelter -- is difficult enough without considering social distancing and other current safety measures.

Dealing with the emotional toll felt by people facing multiple disasters is essential, said Seigel, who stressed that helping them "think more clearly and react to situations the way you need to" means maintaining one's mental health. (The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also provides a 24/7 Disaster Distress Helpline, 1-800-989-5990, dedicated to crisis counseling for people related to disaster.)

When it comes to hurricane preparation, it may be harder to get items to replenish emergency kits. Experts recommend giving yourself more time to stockpile emergency food, water and medical supplies, preferably via online delivery services.

If you need to evacuate, the CDC recommends adding to your "go kit" items that protect from COVID-19 -- hand sanitizer, soap and at least two cloth face coverings.

People who otherwise may pack into a single location to ride out the storm probably will need to flee elsewhere or risk spreading or contracting the virus.

"It may not be the big gymnasiums that we've used in previous years and instances," Siegel said.

Gyms may be replaced by hotels or dorms, places where households can stay together but also remain separate from other evacuees.

"We're telling people to stay home and stay away from one another, and now we want to ask them to come into a shelter," said Mollie Mahany, senior public health adviser at the CDC.

Despite stay-at-home orders, experts said, if you need to visit a disaster shelter, you should still go -- just be extra careful. Local authorities and health experts are trying to balance the best way to help as many people as possible while also limiting the spread of COVID-19.

For staff members at such locations, new guidance includes monitoring people for symptoms, providing separate areas for local residents with symptoms, and, if available, testing staff, volunteers and residents in accordance with local policies.

Anyone in a shelter who begins feeling ill should tell a staff member or volunteer immediately. In addition to continuing to practice social distancing and frequently washing your hands, reinforce these measures with children and be a good role model.

Experts acknowledge some of the challenges may include shortages of masks or testing supplies, difficulties in transportation and some people who ignore protocol such as social distancing.

"The one that concerns me the most is those afraid to go to shelters," Mahany added. "We have this hybrid disaster -- people are fearful of COVID-19, now they're fearful of their homes and livelihoods and their families and so forth."

Hospitals are another concern -- in some areas, facilities are nearing or at capacity, and significant hurricane damage could knock out the power, compromising dialysis clinics and medical refrigeration.

The U.S. this year has already experienced two named storms before the official start of hurricane season, which has happened only four other years on record.

Many people pulling together in the battle against novel coronavirus will have to redouble those efforts to help instill hope in a wary public, encourage compliance and minimize further loss.

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