Disaster preparedness in the midst of COVID-19
April 20, 2020
April 20, 2020
Strategies to consider for strengthening community resilience against compounding threats
Time feels like it is moving to a different beat now that the nation, and the world, has seen a radical shift in the business-as-usual aspects of our lives. Unfortunately, natural disasters and climate change continue to march on, irrespective of the global pandemic at hand. In just the past few weeks, we’ve already experienced spring tornadoes and severe storms in the South, as well as flooding in the Midwest and along the East Coast. June 1st marks the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season, and meteorologists are predicting a higher frequency of storms, hurricanes, and major hurricanes. Wildfire season in California and the West generally begins in the fall, but it is starting earlier and ending later each year as a result of increasing spring and summer temperatures among other variables. Moreover, sea level rise continues to threaten many coastlines, and earthquakes are as unpredictable as ever.
At the same time, the full range of COVID-19 impacts—from social distancing to supply chain interruptions—are likely to be in place for months to come. For many, this is the first-time experiencing disruption at this scale. The event has already placed considerable stress on community resources and public health, particularly in our most vulnerable communities. Should a community be impacted by a simultaneous natural disaster, conventional approaches to emergency management and disaster response like mass gatherings in emergency shelters, rapid evacuation of geographical regions, operational coordination, and mobilization of supplies will not be feasible under the unprecedented conditions of today. It is critical that communities review their emergency plans and procedures now to prepare for an overlapping disaster response in the midst of COVID-19.
To get started, below are strategies to consider for strengthening community resilience against the compounding threats we are faced with: identification of new or retrofitting shelter sites, preparing for virtual operations, reviewing existing disaster response protocols, mutual aid agreements, supplier contracts, and preparing for a quick and successful return of people to their homes. Emergency personnel may not know the timeframe of when this current crisis will be over or when the next disaster will strike, but by combining the fundamentals of disaster response with new information emerging about pandemic response, communities can become more resilient to whatever the future holds. Here are five key considerations to address today:
The Coronavirus has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives. This is likely to trickle down to your emergency procedures. Take the time to review and revise your key emergency documents such as your Emergency Response Plans, Emergency Operation Plans, Standard Operating Procedures, Continuity of Operations Plans, and Sheltering Plans among others. For example, consider the following:
Emergency Operations Centers are typically the heart of disaster response. While its function works to unite different agencies and departments to leverage and quickly deploy resources, they may be subject to overcrowding, putting disaster responders at risk. While safeguards can be put in place, COVID-19 has provided our communities, many for the first time, with the opportunity to develop and deploy virtual strategies for operational coordination. Things to consider include:
Many jurisdictions rely on mutual aid agreements and memorandums of understanding (MOUs) in a disaster. It is important to determine now if the pandemic has impacted these agreements and procedures. Supply chain analyses are typically carried out at the Federal or State level, however at this current time, in light of highly localized availability of food, medical equipment, and personal protective equipment (PPE), supply chain scenario planning carried out at the local level is recommended. In addition, consider:
It is critical that communities review their emergency plans and procedures now to prepare for an overlapping disaster response in the midst of COVID-19.
Social distancing has proven to be a critical tool in flattening the curve of COVID-19 and is likely to continue in some form for the foreseeable future. However, social distancing is not conducive to typical shelter set-ups which are aimed at maximizing capacity. Additionally, some sheltering sites officially designated for disaster use are currently being used as temporary healthcare facilities for COVID-19 activities.
The choices that should be considered to address these concerns are all centered on expanding the capacity of your sheltering site inventory. That can be accomplished by either adding sites, retrofitting existing sites, or implementing other measures to reduce the demand on those sites from dislocated populations. In any case, pre-disaster preparations are imperative. It is important to recognize that not just any building can function as a shelter.
Shelter sites are selected by city staff, including engineers and emergency managers, among others, with a range of specific requirements that reflect the hazards posed by high probability events. These include the ability to withstand the hazard at hand, occupancy capacity, and special uses such as sheltering for pets or vulnerable populations. New sites must be identified now to enable fast action when an event occurs. Whether it’s a major event with only a few days warning, such as a hurricane, or a no-notice event such as an earthquake, pre-identifying additional shelters will accelerate the ability to save lives in a disaster.
There are three main questions to ask concerning the logistics of the space, the ability to carry out shelter protocols, and the availability of supplies and personnel. With these in mind, consider the following criteria:
Shelter space logistics
Availability of supplies and personnel
We can’t predict when we will reach the conditions and metrics necessary before communities can begin the phased return back to normal activities. However, it is likely that COVID-19 will remain a threat for many months. In the event of an additional disaster, it is imperative that communities can get people out of shelters and back to their existing homes or temporary housing as soon as possible. Consider the following:
It is hard to visualize what the ‘post-pandemic’ life will look like, or even how we re-mobilize every aspect of our lives again. We have never seen what that looks like before. This will require planning and change management on an unprecedented scale. It will be especially important for communities to leverage the lessons they are learning through their response to COVID-19. Stantec strongly encourages that communities conduct a formal After-Action review of what worked, what didn’t, and what could be improved to support building resilience across your organization. The more we can plan for a quick recovery from the disaster we have already experienced, the faster we can recover from the compounding impacts of the known and the unknown.