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How to Prepare for Natural Disasters During a Pandemic

COVID-19 is going to limit and slow relief—and increase the importance of personal preparedness

A fire camp at the 2019 Kincade Fire in Sonoma Country, California. (Photo: Stuart Palley)
A fire camp at the 2019 Kincade Fire in Sonoma Country, California.

Not to overload you with bad news, but it appears as though the coronavirus pandemic is going to have one more big, unforeseen impact: disaster response. Let’s try to make this as positive a thing as possible by analyzing the ways it’s going to change our responses to stuff like hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires, and arm you with the plans and supplies you need to handle those things happening in the midst of a disease outbreak. 

A Disaster for Disasters

“First responders, hospitals, government agencies, and NGOs are, in some areas of the country, already stressed to the breaking point,” says Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center. 

She offers New York City as an example. There, the peak of COVID-19 cases earlier this month left hospital bed capacity exhausted, 911 call centers overwhelmed, and the city even ran out of ambulances. Doctors, nurses, and EMTs fell ill with the disease, leading to staffing shortages. Imagine if an event like Hurricane Sandy occurred in the city or anywhere else heavily impacted by the pandemic right now. 

And it’s not just your outright ability to find medical care that’s tenuous at best. The ways in which federal and local governments, utilities, and charities respond to disasters are also compromised, both because they are already dealing with a major disaster, and because that pandemic will impair their ability to perform their usual functions. 

“Mutual aid will not be possible right now,” says Katz. That’s an arrangement by which states provide each other with additional personnel in the event of a disaster, temporarily surging the number of firefighters or search and rescue workers. Think of the response to the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York as an example: emergency responders arrived in the city from all over the country to help in the immediate aftermath. Right now, those personnel may already be tasked with COVID-19 related-duties, or may be unable or unwilling to travel to disease hot spots. In a best case scenario, those responders will need to find new ways to perform their work, and that threatens to add stress to already stressful scenarios and reduce the effectiveness of their work. 

COVID-19 is already impairing the ability of wildland firefighters in western states to train and prepare for what looks like another bad wildfire season. Spring is the time in which fire crews typically conduct controlled burns and begin hiring and training firefighters for the rest of the year. Right now, those controlled burns aren’t happening, increasing the risk of fires starting and spreading. Training is being conducted virtually, limiting the team cohesion that is essential to their performance. 

And the methods those firefighters will employ when fires do breakout are going to have to change too. In the past, wildland firefighters have slept in large fire camps that provide hot meals, laundry facilities, and fresh supplies, like batteries for handheld radios. That’s going to look different this year, with firefighters moving to smaller spike camps, where services will be limited. In-person briefings will move to radio or digital communications, and hot meals will be replaced by MREs. Fires are typically fought by crews working shoulder to shoulder, as they dig fire breaks. Those crews may now be required to work at appropriate social distances. 

“From the added stress of the pandemic and being away from family for an additional quarantine period to exposure to the virus to communication issues, I have no doubt that this will lead to issues,” says Stuart Palley, a friend, wild fire photographer, and passionate advocate for the wildland firefighting community. “Something is going to slip through the cracks” 

Katz asks: “What are these workers going to do once the disaster is over?” Response personnel who travel away from their local community, respond to a disease hot spot, or who come into contact with infected patients will face a significant risk of infection. That means, at best, all of them will need to quarantine for 14 days. At worst, disaster response personnel could be sacrificing their lives to respond to disasters. The potential mental health impacts of all this are sobering.

Potential Problems, and How You Can Prepare for Them

Stressed Healthcare Resources

You don’t want to go to a hospital right now for two reasons: risk of infection and to avoid further burdening limited resources. Having said that, you should not hesitate to call 911 or visit an emergency room in the event of a life threatening emergency. Great efforts are being made to separate COVID-19 patients from others, and odds remain good that you will avoid infection. 

Palley, the wildfire photographer, provides a good example. He called me two weeks ago when he sliced one of his fingers down to the bone. I tried to coach him through some first aid over the phone, but we were unsuccessful. After half an hour of continuous bleeding, he made the responsible decision: he went to urgent care, where they used surgical glue to close the wound. Learning his lesson, he picked up some of that glue and other first aid supplies he was lacking on the way home. Now he’s better prepared and playing his part in minimizing the burden healthcare facilities face. 

You should evaluate your own first aid materials, medications, and other supplies, and make sure they’re adequate for the size of your family and their unique needs. Now is also a good time to brush up on first aid skills. St. John’s Ambulance offers comprehensive guides to life saving skills on its YouTube channel. 

Longterm Utility Outages

Issues with mutual aid and bringing in additional utility workers from out of state, or even from a neighboring region, might mean the kind of utility outages that are common in natural disasters may take longer to repair during the pandemic. 

For that reason, it’s probably good to evaluate your home’s utility supply, and make sure you’re prepared to provide necessary light, power, heat, water, and the ability to cook for your family for an extended period of time. This can be as easy as grabbing an extra tank of propane for your grill or camp stove, an emergency home water filter, a handful of lanterns, and some batteries. It’s probably also a good time to familiarize yourself with your home’s main water valve, electrical circuit breakers, and gas shutoff, and make sure you have the right wrench to work the latter. 

Infectious Shelters

Now is not the time to find yourself sleeping on a cot inside the Superdome. Katz explains governments and relief agencies are looking at ways to house evacuees in less crowded circumstances—potentially even currently underutilized hotels. And, like fire camps, food may no longer be served in chow lines, but instead offered in the form of individual meals delivered to those hotel rooms or already stockpiled, already hermetically sealed MREs. But plans to execute such housing on a large scale in a short period of time do not yet exist. 

The way to avoid ending up in a shelter is to make an evacuation plan now, then employ it early. Identify a safe location, such as a relative’s house in a neighboring state, and make a plan to reach it that includes the need to avoid as much human contact along the way and self-quarantining for 14 days upon arrival. Work with your family to identify the factors that will inform your decision to evacuate, monitor the news, and leave once you feel it is prudent to do so. A pandemic is no time to attempt to stay in your home as it’s threatened by a hurricane, wildfire, or similar. To do so would be to risk exposure to the coronavirus should you end up in a shelter, while further burdening already stressed first responder resources if you need to be rescued. 

Uncertain Supply Chains

It’s already looking as if the nation’s supply of meat and CO2 may be threatened by the pandemic. Goods shipped in from overseas have been experiencing supply difficulties since February. Stockpiled relief goods are already being used, and the staff and logistical resources it takes to deploy them are already employed. 

As a result, some state officials are urging people to expand the 72-hours of supplies FEMA recommends all homes have on hand in normal circumstances to enough food, water, and medical goods to get your family through at least 14 days of sheltering in place. 

Socially Distant Evacuations

“The time to plan your evacuation is now,” says Katz. Many state governments are already requesting that any travelers arriving from out-of-state self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Any travel between regions risks spreading the disease to new communities or individuals along the way, or at your destination. So, this risk needs to be factored into your evacuation plans. 

In your evacuation plan, include the need to minimize your risk of exposure and transmission as you travel, and a two week quarantine upon your arrival. Using disinfectant wipes, gloves, and face masks at grocery stores and gas stations should be considered essential. The self-quarantine period will look different for everyone. It could mean anything from camping in your parents’ yard for two weeks, to living in a garage, or, if nothing else is available, sequestering yourself in an isolated area of a home. 

You can help minimize the risk of exposure and transmission by limiting the distance of your evacuation and avoiding contact with other people along your route to the greatest degree possible. 

“If you plan to evacuate to another person’s home, you need to communicate with them to make sure a quarantine period is possible,” says Katz. 

The Silver Lining

“The virus can also lead to unexpected outcomes,” says Katz. She points to the tornado outbreak in Tennessee on March 2 and 3, saying that while 26 people were killed and 300 were injured, the results could have been much worse had more people been driving during the unexpected storms, rather than staying at home. 

Stay-at-home orders have also caused traffic fatalities to drop by half in California. Ongoing travel restrictions could mean fewer people are exposed to regional disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes. The flexibility offered by unemployment or working from home could allow people to evacuate earlier than they may have in the past. 

And, if nothing else, the pool of potential volunteers available to provide relief for disasters in their home regions has never been larger. The Red Cross is even offering online training, so people can better prepare to volunteer if a disaster strikes their community. 

Katz has one final note of encouragement: “We’re already telling people to basically have 14 days of supplies on hand,” she says. Stay home advisories encourage people to limit shopping trips to once every ten days or two weeks, which means you’ve probably already figured out what you need to be self sufficient for an extended period of time. And who knows? Some of us may even get to use all that toilet paper we panic bought, and the pounds upon pounds of rice and beans it seemed smart to stock up on a month ago. 

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Filed To: First AidWildfireCoronavirusSurvivalWeatherIndefinitely Wild
Lead Photo: Stuart Palley

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