Weather forecasters say the current tropical storm season is likely to be more active than normal, with as many as six major hurricanes. But planning for these disasters is more complex this year. The coronavirus pandemic has made it harder to stock up on emergency supplies and will almost certainly complicate evacuation efforts. John Yang reports.
The 2020 tropical storm season has already been more active than usual. The fifth named storm formed in the Atlantic over the weekend, and forecasters say there could be as many as six major hurricanes.
But, as John Yang reports, this year, planning for these storms is complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.
When Tropical Storm Cristobal lashed the Gulf Coast earlier this past month, it was already the third named storm of the year.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards:
Gov. John Bel Edwards:
The storm could have been a lot worse, I'm very thankful to say. We were largely spared from the most significant impacts that had been forecasted.
Still, Cristobal was part of a fast start to what forecasters say is most likely to be an unusually active Atlantic storm season. The coronavirus already guarantees it will be unlike any other, as President Trump noted during a recent briefing on hurricane preparedness.
President Donald Trump:
So, you think we could have a slightly enhanced hurricane season? That's just what we want. That's just what we want.
Let's see. Hopefully, that won't be the case.
The pandemic has changed residents' and governments' preparations, affecting everything from their ability to stock up on supplies to evacuation plans.
For example, large buildings like schools and community centers typically have served as evacuation shelters. Recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, large shelters should be a last resort.
But the Federal Emergency Management Agency has acknowledged that some mass sheltering will still be necessary in many hurricane scenarios.
Two years ago, Sharon Bryant of New Bern, North Carolina, survived Hurricane Florence. The storm dropped 30 inches of rain in parts of the Carolinas.
When you are saying, social distance yourself six feet from someone, wear your mask, wear your glove, now, if they have to go into the shelter, then that means that you're going to be — limit to how many people are going there.
Are you going to test these people to make sure no one have the virus? And then, if they did, where would they go?
Steven Still is the emergency management director for New Hanover County, a couple hours south of New Bern.
We are fairly certain that we will have some type of in-county shelter. We have to have more locations, more shelter teams. And we are also jockeying for position with every other county, municipality and state for personal protective equipment and sanitizer.
So it's not a good picture, but everybody is in the same position.
And if a big storm does hit, rebuilding could be even more challenging.
In 2017, floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey destroyed much of Daniel Tellez's home in Houston, Texas. The fear of losing his home again, this time in the middle of a pandemic, weighs heavily on his mind.
It's going to be tough. I honestly don't really want to think about it, if we're being honest.
I tried to be as hands on as possible with the repairs, which meant having to go to stores, having to speak to multiple contractors. It's going to be tricky trying to navigate all of that through a pandemic.
In Florida, where coronavirus cases are again on the rise, officials are weighing options like shelter-in-place orders for people living in homes that are strong enough, and using underused hotels as shelters.
Craig Fugate was FEMA administrator under President Obama. He's now chief emergency management officer for One Concern, a company that helps cities and counties with disaster response.
Is your advice to people in hurricane-prone areas any different because of the coronavirus than it would be any other year?
About the only thing I recommend is add the mask, gloves, hand sanitizer, disinfectants to your supply kits.
And if you're not in an evacuation zone — this is not any different, but there's more emphasis this year — take the steps to prepare your home. Know when it was built, know the building codes. And if it's a good option for you and your family, stay there and prepare for the storm.
It always comes back to the individual situation. The one thing we don't want is people in an evacuation zone not to evacuate over fear of COVID, because that could put them at even greater risk and also responders who may have to go in and do rescues in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
Fugate says the virus may also force changes in the way relief workers respond to disasters.
Normally, a lot of this would be build big base camps, put everybody four to a room in a hotel, do mass feeding.
Probably going to have to change a lot of that, and those plans are under way. Also, keep the teams coming in separate from each other, so if they're coming from different states, they don't cross-mingle with other teams, they stay with the teams they came with. Wear the PPE.
What about the emergency managers? They have been through a fairly intense three-or-four-month period where they have been fighting the pandemic, and now they have got this hurricane season coming up.
Is there a worry about the stamina, the ability to sort of keep up at this level, this high level?
It's what emergency managers do. We got the same questions after getting four hurricanes in one year in Florida in 2004.
Yes, they're tired. And, yes, they have been thinking about this. This is not something they just started yesterday thinking about hurricane season and other disasters. The reality is, if the system could adjust and handle this, you don't need emergency management.
Emergency management is for the extreme events that the org chart of government just can't even begin to deal with.
And this summer, extreme events, a pandemic and powerful hurricanes, could be on a collision course.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.
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John Yang is a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He covered the first year of the Trump administration and is currently reporting on major national issues from Washington, DC, and across the country.
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