To hear what climate scientists and epidemiologists learned about how to evacuate during a pandemic, join an expert panel discussion livestreamed on Florida Climate Voices’ Facebook page Thursday, Sept. 3 at 11 a.m.
By Kristina Dahl, Union of Concerned Scientists
Just as hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes in Texas and Louisiana during Hurricane Laura, hurricane evacuations in Florida can force millions of people to leave home and seek safe shelter elsewhere.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, an evacuation—and the person-to-person contact it would involve—poses health risks.
The peak of an extremely active hurricane season is upon us. Hurricane Laura marked the first hurricane-pandemic collision in the US. When these two threats collide, is it possible to evacuate people safely?
Because government agencies, health officials, relief organizations and potential evacuees have expressed concerns about the safety of evacuations during the pandemic, my colleagues and I designed a study to identify measures to make evacuations as safe as possible.
Our study took data about the counties where Florida evacuees went to during Hurricane Irma and fed it into an epidemiological model that simulated how evacuation patterns would affect the number of COVID-19 cases in the county and where they would occur.
Our work shows that we can minimize the number of COVID-19 cases resulting from evacuation. But to do so, we need to optimize evacuation plans based on real-time information about disease incidence and transmission. We found, for example, that encouraging evacuees to go to counties with low COVID-19 transmission rates could minimize the total number of resulting COVID-19 cases.
Decision-making around evacuations—including when, whether and where to go—is complex and generally undertaken on a household basis. But local officials may want to encourage evacuation to some counties over others to minimize spread of the virus.
Additionally, it will be critical that destination counties have the resources to ensure the safety of both people living there and the evacuees they are sheltering. These resources could include funding for hotel rooms for evacuees rather than shelters with shared facilities, additional staff to encourage social distancing and compliance with facemask orders, and protective equipment for those tasked with assisting evacuees.
During Hurricane Laura, states successfully issued hotel vouchers to thousands of evacuees, enabling them to shelter from the storm while maintaining social distancing. A voucher system is especially helpful at this time because unemployment and financial insecurity are high as a result of the economic fallout from COVID-19.
Florida has issued state-level guidance on responding to the dual threats of COVID-19 and tropical storms. Much of the implementation of that guidance, however, falls to counties. Given the wide range of county-level responses to the threat of COVID-19, evacuees could encounter very different COVID-19 prevention regimes from one county to another. It’s important to make sure that wherever evacuees land, they’re able to receive the services they need while ensuring everyone’s safety.
The COVID-19 pandemic has proven difficult for the United States to contain. The potential confluence of a hurricane and the pandemic, though, illustrates how climate change can act as a threat multiplier. Individually, these threats present profound challenges to the affected communities. Together the cascading threats could seriously strain the capacity of local, state, and federal agencies to respond.
As the planet continues to warm, many forms of extreme weather will become more frequent and severe. Climate change is not expected to increase the frequency of hurricanes, but is expected to make them stronger, wetter and more intense.
First, warmer ocean waters fuel storms into Categories 4 and 5. Second, sea-level rise increases the resulting storm surge. Finally, because warmer air can hold more water, hurricanes in a warmer world have the potential to bring extremely heavy rainfall like we saw during Hurricane Harvey in Texas in 2017.
Importantly, climate change and COVID-19 intersect with the omnipresent weight of racial and economic disparities experienced acutely by those whose health, lives and livelihoods have long been discounted.
As a result of centuries of systemic racism, many Black, Latinx and Indigenous people experience slower recoveries after natural disasters with limited resources. These same communities have suffered higher COVID-19 infection, death and unemployment rates during the pandemic. Plans for keeping people safe while evacuating amidst a pandemic must particularly address the needs of those most vulnerable.
While collisions between a hurricane and a pandemic may be unprecedented, the science tells us that using real-time COVID-19 data, encouraging evacuation to counties with low COVID-19 transmission rates, and giving local governments the resources they need to keep transmission rates low could help minimize the impact of such a collision this hurricane season.
Enabling science-based decision-making processes now will help communities make better, more informed decisions when future multifaceted, climate-related challenges arise.
Kristina Dahl is a senior climate scientist for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. For more information, www.ucsusa.org and join the webinar: Colliding Crisis in Florida: Hurricanes, Climate & the COVID Pandemic which will be livestreamed on Florida Climate Voices’ Facebook page Thursday, Sept.3 at 11 am.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.