Sheltering in a pandemic:
Emergency managers consider COVID impacts on hurricane evacuation

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This year, Hampton Roads residents preparing for hurricane season added masks and sanitizer to their go-bags. People stocked up on bottled water and canned goods for severe weather—with grocery store shortages from the pandemic still fresh in their memories—as they prepared to hunker down at home.

Emergency managers and local governments are also planning for how the pandemic will influence hurricane shelters, evacuation, and emergency response during severe weather. A working group of local, state, and national leaders convened to prepare for hurricane season during a pandemic in May and June. During the series of six meetings, the CONVERGE workgroup discussed vulnerability, containing the spread of coronavirus, logistics of shelter operations, communicating risk, and the psychological toll caused by multiple community hazards.

“When NOAA came out with its more aggressive hurricane season forecast, we started thinking about how life has changed pretty drastically,” said Public Health Professor Wie Yusuf of Old Dominion University. “What will happen if we have a pretty bad hurricane in the middle of COVID-19?”

Yusuf and a group of researchers from ODU and the University of South Florida organized the CONVERGE workgroups as a response to these public health hazards. The six workshops, funded through the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center, brought together experts in public health, policy, and emergency management from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

While the workgroup focused on hurricane response in Virginia, participants shared examples from across the United States as regions deal with different aspects of emergency shelters. In Florida, the emergency operation center had to shut down at the state level due to coronavirus infections among staff, Yusuf said.

This spring, staff at tornado shelters in Mississippi also observed more people delayed entering shelters by staying in their cars. One of the CONVERGE workshops focused on communicating risk to the public—and understanding the choices people weigh as they decide whether to evacuate, stay at home, or go to a shelter.

“With COVID-19, the criteria that people weigh as they think about whether to evacuate or not has changed,” Yusuf said. “Concerns about elderly family members, concerns about reduced work hours and the effects of that—we just don’t know how that factors into the decision matrix.”

The coronavirus pandemic has also increased the number of “vulnerable” populations for shelters to consider. Workgroups discussed how to care for populations with special medical needs, and whether to establish separate shelters for people who are at higher risk for COVID-19.

During the workgroups, emergency responders discussed non-congregate alternatives to traditional shelters where people congregate in school gyms and cafeterias, such as opening additional parts of the school or contracting with hotels to help with social distancing.

 

“What will happen if we have a pretty bad hurricane in the middle of COVID-19?”
 
“We are actively working to put procedures and contracts in place to accommodate non-congregate sheltering.”

Cletisha Lovelace, Virginia Department of Social Services public affairs associate director, said the VDSS is preparing additional shelter spaces while also adapting plans for traditional congregate shelters.

“Based on state and federal guidance regarding COVID-19, non-congregate sheltering is the focus of our current shelter planning and preparation,” Lovelace said. “We are actively working to put procedures and contracts in place to accommodate non-congregate sheltering.”

Economic vulnerability—also heightened by the pandemic—means less people have the financial resources to evacuate, which may result in higher demand for shelters. At the same time, shelters will likely have lower capacity to prevent the spread of COVID-19. There may also be less volunteers and emergency responders available to staff shelters, since many responders have been dealing with coronavirus response since March, and volunteers may opt to stay home rather than risk infection.

“They're going to require masks to be worn, hand sanitizer, and touchless registration,” said Saige Hill, an ODU student and Virginia Sea Grant fellow who moderated the workgroups. “But people don't usually evacuate until the last minute. If the roads are too crowded, or public transit has shut down, they can't get out as fast as they need to. Then the shelters get inundated.”

One workgroup focused on public communication about shelters and evacuation. Hill and other participants emphasized shelters as a last resort and encouraged coastal residents to plan ahead and make alternative arrangements whenever possible. Communicating hurricane messages through local networks can also help get the word out to communities that are already inundated with news about the pandemic.

“My church in Norfolk, VA currently has a team that calls an assigned group of members every two weeks to check on members during COVID,” said one workgroup participant. “This established system could be utilized to share risk communication.”

A list of resources and suggestions from each discussion can be found on the CONVERGE working group website. While there are still more questions than answers, Yusuf said the workgroups helped launch the conversation and planning efforts currently underway.

“Emergency managers, state planners, public health professionals—they've already been thinking about this issue for months now,” Yusuf said. “By talking to other people across the Eastern Seaboard, we're recognizing that some people have thought about different answers for different parts of the problem. We're not starting from scratch, and I think that's really important.”

TAKEAWAYS

  • Emergency managers and local governments are also planning for how the pandemic will influence shelters, evacuation, and emergency response during severe weather during the CONVERGE workgroups
  • The groups discussed how COVID-19 will affect shelter logistics, risk communication, and the psychological wellbeing of first responders and the public.
  • While there are still more questions than answers, the workgroups helped regions learn from each other and identify critical issues to address before the next storm.
  • Photo and video by Aileen Devlin | Virginia Sea Grant

    Written by Madeleine Jepsen | Virginia Sea Grant

    Published August 17, 2020.

     
    Communicating hurricane messages through local networks can also help get the word out to communities that are already inundated with news about the pandemic.