Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Emergency managers work nonstop to prepare communities for hurricanes during pandemic

Damage from Hurricane Michael in Alabama. Photo by Alabama Emergency Management Agency

Each spring, emergency managers working along the Gulf Coast begin preparing for hurricane season. They spend weeks visiting churches, senior centers, and housing authorities, giving presentations on hurricane preparedness. They do dry-runs of storm scenarios, reviewing evacuation plans and communicating with partner agencies and organizations to ensure shelters will be ready. 

This year, that planning looks vastly different because of the coronavirus pandemic. Emergency managers — local and state officials who oversee disaster contingency planning, public education, and recovery — can’t meet face-to-face to go over crucial protocols, or spend time with communities answering questions. 

For now, much of it is happening virtually, said Zachary Hood, emergency management director for Baldwin County, Alabama, who will be attending a virtual state-wide hurricane planning exercise this month. But, he added, “we won’t be able to do it in as much detail. We’ll make sure we’re good to go, but we’ll miss that personal contact. It’s not the same.”

It’s not only inconvenient — the pandemic is stretching already thin resources in counties across the region, especially ones hit by recent disasters. Mississippians weathered historic February floods that inundated hundreds of homes, and then a string of April tornadoes that killed at least 15 people. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA)’s 150-person staff has been working seven days a week for nearly three months. “We have multiple disasters that we’re working with at the same time,” said Malary White, director of external affairs for MEMA. “But at the same time, it’s nothing new for us.”

Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1, and scientists say warm Gulf of Mexico waters could result in more frequent and intense storms this year. MEMA executive director Gregory Michel said this could be “one of the most dangerous hurricane seasons that we’ve had in the last 10 years.” 

“We have to plan for a [Hurricane] Katrina in the middle of COVID-19,” White said.

Emergency management employees say they are exhausted from weeks of nonstop work. Many have been acquiring and distributing personal protective equipment for local healthcare workers amid national shortages, coordinating mobile COVID-19 testing centers in rural areas, and assuring that local food pantries are stocked. They have been disseminating constantly-changing information about COVID-19 cases and stay-at-home mandates via social media. 

Now, on top of that, they’re trying to figure out how to handle a hurricane under these circumstances. They’re urging residents to stock up on food and water, as well as masks and hand sanitizer, and telling them to reassess evacuation plans in case relatives or friends they usually flee to are at a high risk for COVID-19. 

Remote communication runs counter to disaster response best practices. Emergency managers and first responders usually pack into a room, quickly deciding when to order evacuations, close roads, and open shelters. “Nearly everything that we do when we respond to a hurricane requires people to be in close proximity to one another,” said Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management and disaster science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. 

One of the most urgent concerns is how to handle shelters, often housed in schools or civic centers. Some managers, including in Harrison County, Mississippi, say they’re expecting a higher number of people to need shelters since residents may not be able to afford to evacuate because of lost income or unemployment. Harrison County has seen the highest unemployment counts in the state since March, likely due to the coastal county’s lack of tourism revenue during the pandemic — it is home to 10 out of 12 casinos on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. 

The trouble is finding enough space to accommodate people in need. Eric Gilmore, emergency manager for Escambia County, Florida, which is on the panhandle, said his county typically opens eight shelters during a natural disaster. With safe physical distancing protocols, they’d need 29. “That increases my staffing needs that I really don’t have,” Gilmore said. 

Michael Evans, Deputy Director of the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency in Alabama, has similar concerns. One of the main shelters in Mobile County is a school that can hold 1,800 people under normal circumstances. He said they may have to “cut those numbers by two-thirds.” Even getting people to these locations  may be difficult: New Orleans officials plan to screen people waiting for public transportation for COVID-19 symptoms — a process that requires evacuation orders to be issued much earlier than usual. 

The American Red Cross, which oversees some shelters after disasters, could see a decline in volunteers, many of whom are older and at a higher risk for COVID-19. John McFarland, executive director of the organization’s southeast Mississippi chapter, said that April’s severe weather affected about 1,300 homes in his 28-county jurisdiction, with over half destroyed or majorly damaged. The Red Cross temporarily housed people in hotels, which quickly got expensive. “It will probably double the cost we would normally have just for this particular disaster,” McFarland said.

Every state in the U.S. has declared an emergency over COVID-19, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is offering grants — provided by the first stimulus package — to assist local governments with managing the coronavirus pandemic. “All disaster response should be locally executed, state managed and federally supported,” said a FEMA spokesperson via email. That federal support could look different this hurricane season, as FEMA is also tasked with coordinating the nation’s response to the pandemic. The agency has seen major budget cuts and reallocations in recent years, and reports have raised concerns over staffing shortages and qualifications — all while it has faced record-setting extreme weather events like the California wildfires and Gulf of Mexico hurricanes.

Some of the work typically done by FEMA officials is falling to local managers. White said that individuals and businesses in three Mississippi counties hit by tornadoes are applying for federal funding to help pay for temporary housing and home repair. FEMA employees have previously helped with this in-person, but since the agency is working remotely, they’re asking Mississippians to apply online, which is not always possible for rural and low-income communities.

A Mississippi home damaged by April tornadoes. Photo courtesy MEMA

“In Mississippi, we know that not everyone has access to apply for assistance virtually, or that they may not have internet access or laptops or cell phones,” White said. “We’ve got to make sure that our Mississippians can apply to that very important assistance so they can start rebuilding their lives.” 

MEMA has sent postcards to people informing them that they can apply for assistance, and is collaborating with nonprofits to manage three disaster assistance centers where individuals can meet with staff and volunteers — who wear masks and stay physically distanced — to apply for funding. These centers could provide a useful model for communities during hurricane season if FEMA isn’t able to aid impacted people on the ground in the way they typically do. 

The FEMA spokesperson noted that about 15% of employees are working on COVID-19, and the rest are prepared to respond to other emergencies. The agency plans to release a document outlining new protocols and expectations for emergency management agencies for hurricane response. 

The pandemic is shedding light on inequities in Gulf states and around the U.S., especially during public health and environmental disasters. In Mississippi, African Americans represent 56% of the state’s known COVID-19 infections and 57% of deaths, even though they make up less than 40% of the state’s population. The Union of Concerned Scientists urged Congress to address this disparity in relief packages by targeting funding for pre-disaster mitigation to “help prepare and protect communities ahead of time, particularly African American, Latinx and Native American communities that are suffering the brunt of the pandemic.”

With a hurricane, Montano said, “we can unfortunately expect that those same communities in many ways will be ones that are in a position to not have the funding to evacuate, to not have the option of going to stay at a hotel, to not have the resources to recover afterwards.” This was the case for aid processes after previous storms, including Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Harvey: Low-income people of color were disproportionately affected. 

Several Southern states, including Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi, have lifted or eased stay-at-home orders, even as experts warn it could spur a rebound in COVID-19 cases. Jeff Schlegelmilch, Deputy Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, said that in order to prevent the worst — outbreaks at hurricane shelters, transporting the virus through large-scale evacuations —the best thing to do is slow the spread of the coronavirus. That burden may fall on individual communities, including emergency managers, local officials, and disaster recovery organizations. 

“The more we do now to contain the spread of COVID-19, the less of a dual disaster that is, should other things happen,” Schlegelmilch said. “The more we do now to prepare ourselves for whatever comes next, the more control we’re going to have over the situation, and the more options we’ll have available to us.”

Carly Berlin is Southerly’s Gulf Coast correspondent.

This story was supported by a COVID-19 reporting grant from the Lenfest Institute, Facebook Journalism Project, and the Local Media Association.