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‘Subtly terrifying’: How coronavirus changed disaster response

The pandemic has transformed how first responders fight natural disasters like wildfires, hurricanes and floods, and changed evacuation strategies.

Emergency responders face new challenges in fighting wildfires during the pandemic.
Emergency responders face new challenges in fighting wildfires during the pandemic. (Liu Guanguan/China News Service via Getty Images)

Is that the typical cough? Or do I have the coronavirus?

It’s a thought running through firefighters’ minds this year, Jim Whittington, a wildland fire expert based in Medford, Ore., said in an interview. “Smoke affects your respiratory system and affects the immune system. Firefighters get sick throughout the fire season,” Whittington said. So it’s natural for firefighters as they work during the COVID-19 pandemic to wonder if they caught the virus, he said.

“Are you coming down with just a regular wildland fire hacking cough that everybody gets every year, or is this COVID?” said Whittington. “Then the rumors start.” When firefighters see their colleagues get tested for the virus, the fear that one of their own may be positive can disturb an entire crew, he said.

Half a year after it clamped down on America and upended daily life, the coronavirus, which has killed more than 180,000 Americans, has transformed how first responders fight natural disasters, like wildfires, hurricanes and floods, and changed how the public evacuates during a crisis.

Those changes were on display last week as Hurricane Laura battered the Gulf Coast and fires surged on the West Coast and in the Rocky Mountain region.

Compounding the twin crises of the coronavirus and brutal fire and hurricane seasons, which climate change has worsened, is a battered economy already plunged into a recession with a high unemployment rate of more than 10 percent — a mark not seen nationally since the financial crash of 2008.

“You’ve got climate change on one hand, which is increasing the frequency and the magnitude of disasters, but on the social side, you know, too many Americans can’t put their hands on $500 cash,” Brock Long, who led the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 2017 to 2019, said during a recent Bipartisan Policy Center presentation.

Because of the recession, some fleeing danger might not have enough money for proper supplies.

“Our traditional preparedness campaigns of saying ‘go get a kit for three to five days’ is an unrealistic financial ask in most American households right now,” Long said.

A “disaster kit” — supplies for several days, including clothes, food, water, flash lights, money, batteries, cell phone chargers and more — is a staple for someone evacuating during an emergency. After COVID-19 subsumed the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added “cloth face coverings” for everyone 2 or older, soap, disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer to the recommended kit.

Princella Talley, who lives in central Louisiana, waited out Hurricane Laura, which passed through the state Thursday, with face masks and gloves — new additions to her disaster supplies. She pooled hand sanitizer with her family and took comfort in a favorite: a bird-themed mask.

Talley, a staffer with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a climate advocacy group, said leaving home and staying in a shelter is never fun, but during pre-coronavirus storms, a bit of joy came from sheltering with friends, family or even at a public spot. “Now, the idea of seeking shelter anywhere is subtly terrifying because of COVID,” she said.


The methods of evacuation have changed, too. Public transportation options are risky but hard to avoid for those without cars. “Evacuation by bus makes it almost impossible to socially distance,” Talley said.

Kristy Dahl, senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said people in California have taken shelter in schools, which are often empty or lightly used due to the virus, because of wildfires.

Dahl recently cross referenced unemployment figures — many county figures have doubled during the pandemic, she said — with infection estimates and found big disaster evacuations are almost guaranteed to increase COVID-19 cases.

“If you have a large scale evacuation, it’s almost inevitably going to lead to an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases,” Dahl said. “But you can minimize that increase by encouraging people to go to counties where there’s a low transmission rate.”

Nearly 120,000 people in California have left their homes because of the fires, and Dahl, who lives in San Francisco, awoke one morning to find a white and gray layer of ash on her dining table near an open window.

“You find it in a thin film on your car in the morning or the patio of your house,” she said. “It’s sort of everywhere.” Because of the dangers of spreading the coronavirus and lung damage from smoke inhalation, people near fires should wear N95 masks, she said.

FEMA said Friday there were 367 fires burning in California, 24 of which were considered major.

“2020 is a year unlike any other,” said North Carolina Director of Emergency Management Mike Sprayberry. During Hurricane Isaias, which moved north up the Eastern Seaboard in July and August, his agency worked with the Red Cross to book blocks of rooms for three days in hotels, which emergency agencies have increasingly used during the pandemic since they allow for groups to be separated and prevent congregation.

But a huge storm system with more evacuees would have been different, Sprayberry said. “It wasn’t massive evacuations,” he said of Isaias. “So if we had tens of thousands, I don’t know how well we would have done.”

A FEMA spokesperson said the agency moved this year to reimburse states for the cost of sheltering evacuees hotel rooms rather than larger venues like gyms.

The agency is also “using technology to do virtual damage assessments and inspections in order to provide assistance while protecting health,” they said.

In Florida, Jared Moskowitz, head of the state’s emergency management department, said the state purchased so-called negative pressure machines, which are used to strip out contaminants from the air in tight quarters, for shelters there. Yet the state has not faced a massive test of its disaster-during-pandemic response, he said.

“Let’s be honest, we won’t know how people are really going to react and whether they’re going to stay or leave until you know the event happens.” Moskowitz said at the BPC event. “It’s not been fully tested.”

Virtual operations centers

Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said in a recent interview emergency response teams are increasingly using virtual operations centers during a disaster, adding that before the summer, responders had seen a shortage of flights, due to the virus, hampering their ability to reach a site.

“Puerto Rico is probably the No. 1 concern in my mind,” Montano said, noting the island is still recovering from hurricanes and can experience spotty water, power and health services. “They are an island that has particularly vulnerabilities that intersect with the pandemic.”

Montano and other experts worry the virus could hamper volunteer turnout for tasks like gutting houses and sweeping up debris, as well as search and rescue efforts immediately after disaster strikes.

“The way we do search and rescue, we’re in very close proximity to people,” Montano said.

At the start of what is proving to be active hurricane and fire seasons, President Donald Trump moved Aug. 8 to take $44 billion from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, which has more than $70 billion available, and use it on unemployment benefits and virus relief.

Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Calif., chairman of the environment subcommittee of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said in an interview the pandemic has limited FEMA’s capacity to respond to disasters because its resources have been diverted to COVID-19.

“Their ability to respond effectively has been diminished, because of the resources they’ve had to use in the fight against the pandemic,” Rouda said.

Citing a recent field hearing on wildfires, he said cell phone towers in California had gone offline, knocking out a key line of communication for emergency crews during an already chaotic time.

“There was no ability for first responders and emergency responders to be able to effectively communicate to coordinate people and assets and address the changing dynamics of the fires,” Rouda said. “There has to be a greater focus on preparedness” at FEMA, he said.

The virus has changed in subtle ways how people on the front lines plan for and endure disasters, as Whittington said, noting firefighters work in team units and stay isolated from other groups.

“That’s a big part of it this year,” he said. “No longer will you go and sit down next to another crew in the dining hall,” he added. “How do you feed all these people without doing it the way we’ve traditionally done it of just lining a bunch of people up and sharing tables and passing the hot sauce bottle?”

The pathogen also made plain the political and spiritual divides that exist in a polarized country, Talley said. Since state and federal officials are instructing the public to avoid clumping in traditional shelters like auditoriums and arenas, evacuees stay with people already in their coronavirus circles — family.

“Relatives will take you in, but the politics tied to the pandemic can create more fear and tensions,” Talley said. “What if someone feels masks aren’t necessary around familiar faces? What if masks are deemed too ‘political’? What if someone believes their faith is all they need for protection?”

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