Watching news reports over the past few weeks it’s hard to miss scenes of the destructive wildfires raging across Northern California that to date have taken the lives of seven people and destroyed more than 2,500 structures. During the last few days all eyes have also been focused on the Gulf Coast where communities there experienced unprecedented hurricane activity, which caused massive flooding and power outages. Yet even with Fall fast approaching, peak of hurricane and wildfire seasons is upon us. Weather experts nowpredict upwards of 25 named storms before hurricane season concludes in November—twice as many as a typical year—and w
With many of these events there is a need for government agencies and aid organizations to shelter potentially thousands of storm and fire evacuees. as many have discovered, there are numerous challenges to responding to a major natural disaster during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to emergency management experts, the threat of a massive evacuation together with a dangerous pandemic have caused organizations to make significant changes to its disaster response and recovery plans.
In the latest episode of the NFPA Podcast, “Disaster Planning During a Pandemic,” host Jesse Roman, assistant editor of NFPA Journal, speaks with Luke Beckford, the division disaster state relations director of the American Red Cross Pacific Division who discusses different strategies his organization used to assist evacuees of the Apple Fire in Southern California in early August. NFPA Podcast co-host Robbie Dawson, NFPA’s Southeastern regional director, also talks to Anna McRay, a local emergency management director in North Carolina who tells us how her department planned for the arrival of Hurricane Isaias during the pandemic, and what they did differently around sheltering and emergency operations.
Similar agencies are also adapting their emergency disaster planning in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, as highlighted in a new article, Calamity Before the Storm, in the September/October issue of NFPA Journal. In both the podcast and the article, emergency management professionals share lessons they have learned in the hopes that it might help other organizations meet similar challenges in the weeks and months ahead. Topics addressed in the interviews include:
- Ways to approach the process of amending emergency response plans to the current pandemic
- Using historical precedents and lessons learned from recent disasters that can help with current events
- Using NFPA 1616, Standard on Mass Evacuation, Sheltering, and Re-entry Programs, which addresses this type of scenario, and the mechanisms that are in place for those who use the document to adapt their normal plans to fit the current situation
- Ways to provide emergency shelter and food, and comfort to evacuees without spreading the COVID-19 virus
- The importance of developing/strengthening community partnerships
- Keeping emergency workers healthy during the crisis
- The need for continued workforce training
- Mechanisms for safely delivering medical services to shelters
While emergency managers say their mission hasn’t changed, the way in which they fulfill the mission has, and both McRay, Beckford, and others have learned a great deal from their experiences handling a crisis during the pandemic. So much so, they say that several new strategies will likely change how they do their jobs in the future, even after the pandemic is over.