Emergency Preparedness and COVID-19

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Cities are entering an age of compounded risk and extraordinary complexity. In the past, local preparation for natural disasters and climate-related events was never simple, but it was certainly more straightforward. With its own logistical, economic, and political baggage in hand, the coronavirus is now converging with what may be one of our most hazardous summers to date.

We are sliding into an early and highly active hurricane season, a period of normal to above-normal wildfires, and communities across the country are experiencing sustained record-high temperatures. And as we are all painfully aware, coronavirus case numbers and death counts are also rising, with the unmitigated spread now reaching small towns and rural areas in sunbelt states where some or all of these natural hazards pose deadly threats. Meanwhile, the economic toll of the virus has left most local governments in the red, triggering cuts to critical services.

It is not an exaggeration that across the country, elected officials and emergency management teams, engineers, planners, first responders, and other city and county staff now face the most tremendous three-headed foe in recorded history.

The pandemic’s cascading effects have already impacted some communities and populations far worse than others: the elderly, women, non-English-speaking residents, communities of color, low-income individuals, and those with disabilities. There is an abundance of evidence that demonstrates how these same residents are disproportionately impacted by climate impacts.

In many cases, the elderly, disabled, and low-income residents may require more time to evacuate. Often, non-English-speaking communities are the last to hear about evacuation orders and are least likely to be prepared with go-kits. Notably, many lower-income residents (women and people of color in particular) have altogether lost the income that would have enabled them to prepare for this onslaught of hazards – or to remove themselves from harm’s way.

Local disaster preparedness efforts may be hindered by other pandemic-related factors. First responders are experiencing severe disaster fatigue while others have fallen ill, rendering themselves unable to respond while quarantined. State and federal agency staff who are typically involved in wildland fire response have had their hands full with the coronavirus. And the pandemic has made volunteer recruitment more difficult and riskier. With the recent rise in cases, many communities are experiencing shortages of critical supplies and PPE.

Undoubtedly, local governments have long begun their emergency preparations, and many response plans have already been tested. However, some regions will experience unprecedented hazards due to increasing global temperatures – with hotter oceans, coastal and inland areas once considered too cold for storms are facing new flood risks, while hotter air means more lighting and consequently, more wildfires. Even the increased frequency of tornado clusters has been tied to the rise in average global temperature.

Given this confluence of unparalleled challenges, what can local communities do to prepare their residents?

In partnership with several trusted emergency managers, NLC designed a short guide and resource list on Emergency Preparedness Amidst Covid-19 that includes tips on effectively managing sheltering and evacuations, resident communication and preparedness, and improving local response capacity in advance of extreme events. We have also included links to handy checklists, resources to share with residents, mental health resources for staff and first responders, FEMA’s very thorough Operational Guidance document, and additional guidance on heat and wildfire emergencies from the American Flood Coalition and the Union of Concerned Scientists. We hope this compilation of tips and links serves as a helpful resource for local leaders and their communities.

Thank you to our friends at the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management, Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, City of Nashua’s Office of Emergency Management, and NIST for their generous contributions to this guide.

About the Author

Anna-Marandi-4Anna Marandi is a senior associate on the Sustainability Team at the National League of Cities (NLC).