Can Your Community Handle A Natural Disaster And Coronavirus At The Same Time?

solutions When deadly tornadoes struck the Southeast in April, residents in Prentiss, Mississippi, struggled to keep up coronavirus precautions while salvaging what they could from their damaged properties. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

The tornadoes that swept across the Southeast this spring were a warning to communities nationwide: Disasters can happen at any time, and the coronavirus pandemic is making them more difficult to manage and potentially more dangerous.

The next six months could be especially challenging. Forecasts show widespread flooding is likely again this spring from the northern Plains through the Gulf of Mexico. The western U.S. expects significant droughts this summer, a recipe for wildfires. The U.S. is also facing a high-risk Atlantic hurricane season.

Each type of disaster could leave thousands of people homeless and many in need of rescue and emergency care.

Dealing with response and recovery from a disaster in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic raises new and unsettling questions. Who is available to respond? What medical assistance can be provided if hospitals are treating COVID-19 patients and there is already a shortage of supplies? Where do we shelter and house evacuees, given the need to keep large numbers of evacuees socially distant from one another? Moreover, the time frame for dealing with this dual challenge may not be measured in days or even weeks, but rather months and possibly years.

As a civil engineer specializing in risk management, I work with governments and businesses to assess enterprise risks, including extreme weather. There are no silver bullets to solving these dilemmas, but there are simple concepts and questions that planners should be addressing right now.

Planning is crucial

With the coronavirus pandemic adding a new layer of challenges and risks, community leaders should be planning in a structured way for how they will deal with worst-case scenarios.

That means asking: What can go wrong? How likely is it? What are the consequences? And what resources do we need to mitigate the risk?

 Get The Latest From InnerSelf

Before this year, few communities seriously considered the need to deal with a pandemic on top of a natural disaster. Their playbooks for responding to a tornado or a hurricane likely didn’t include the need to consider social distancing in emergency shelters or how to get help from other states when a widespread health crisis is underway.

Officials should be asking the key questions again, casting the net wide enough to consider any plausible scenario. Importantly, they should be addressing where personnel, equipment, facilities and supplies can be found and how those resources should be allocated.

Can Your Community Handle A Natural Disaster And Coronavirus At The Same Time? Schools are often used as emergency shelters during disasters, like this one was in Florida ahead of Hurricane Michael in 2018. They aren’t designed for social distancing. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

With the likelihood that resources normally available from federal agencies and mutual aid agreements won’t be accessible this year, some local communities have started banding together to fill the void.

In New Orleans, Evacuteer, a nonprofit normally focused on helping residents evacuate during a hurricane, has shifted its operations to stockpiling food and supplies, recognizing that the pandemic response has depleted many of these resources.

The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, a coalition of mayors and leaders, is procuring personal protective equipment for distribution to wherever severe flooding may occur.

Vacant hotel rooms and college dormitories are becoming important sheltering options. When tornadoes hit the Southeast in April, the Red Cross turned to a revised playbook and responded with social distancing in mind. Instead of opening shelters, where the coronavirus could easily spread, it worked with hotels to put hundreds of storm victims into rooms. Its volunteers, normally on the scene after disasters, jumped into emergency response coordination work from home.

The logistics challenge and federal leadership

Without careful, coordinated planning, desperately needed resources can be sent to the wrong locations, leaving the areas most in need of assistance without lifesaving capabilities.

The shortages of testing, face masks and ventilators in areas hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic show how logistical failures can threaten the quality of health care and the susceptibility of hospital workers to harm.

Ideally, disaster logistics management should be a federal role. The federal government has greater access to supplies and the authority to marshal resources. The most effective approach is centralized control of the supply chain and a unified command structure, much in the way the Defense Logistics Agency supports military operations. It requires total awareness of where to get supplies and where they are needed, and the ability to alter traditional supply chains when necessary.

Many case studies illustrate the success of this approach, and the risks of not using it. During the 2001 terrorist attack on the Pentagon, the Arlington County Fire Department quickly established a unified command with other agencies. The emergency crews on the scene knew who was in charge and could coordinate effectively. Conversely, the disorganized response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left tens of thousands of people without basic supplies.

Changing how businesses operate

Inventory management is perhaps the most difficult challenge. In our global economy, companies have been overwhelmingly focused on cutting costs to remain competitive.

Businesses respond by keeping inventory as low as possible, relying on the supply chain to make just-in-time deliveries to meet production and service needs. There is little to no adaptive capacity in the system – the excess resources they could draw upon when a disaster strikes.

Creating this adaptive capacity will require a sea change in how businesses operate, with the strategy of cutting costs to the max replaced with a more reasoned approach of being cost-conscious while maintaining a sufficient inventory to meet societal needs.

Now is the time to recognize how to become resilient when confronting multiple disasters simultaneously. There is a famous oil filter commercial in which an auto mechanic, discussing the cost of replacing an oil filter as opposed to the cost of engine repair by deferring that decision, declares: “You can pay me now….or you can pay me later.” Later is no longer an option.

About The Author

Mark Abkowitz, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Vanderbilt Center for Environmental Management Studies, Vanderbilt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming

by Paul Hawken and Tom Steyer
9780143130444In the face of widespread fear and apathy, an international coalition of researchers, professionals, and scientists have come together to offer a set of realistic and bold solutions to climate change. One hundred techniques and practices are described here—some are well known; some you may have never heard of. They range from clean energy to educating girls in lower-income countries to land use practices that pull carbon out of the air. The solutions exist, are economically viable, and communities throughout the world are currently enacting them with skill and determination. Available On Amazon

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy

by Hal Harvey, Robbie Orvis, Jeffrey Rissman
1610919564With the effects of climate change already upon us, the need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions is nothing less than urgent. It’s a daunting challenge, but the technologies and strategies to meet it exist today. A small set of energy policies, designed and implemented well, can put us on the path to a low carbon future. Energy systems are large and complex, so energy policy must be focused and cost-effective. One-size-fits-all approaches simply won’t get the job done. Policymakers need a clear, comprehensive resource that outlines the energy policies that will have the biggest impact on our climate future, and describes how to design these policies well. Available On Amazon

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

by Naomi Klein
1451697392In This Changes Everything Naomi Klein argues that climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways. Klein meticulously builds the case for how massively reducing our greenhouse emissions is our best chance to simultaneously reduce gaping inequalities, re-imagine our broken democracies, and rebuild our gutted local economies. She exposes the ideological desperation of the climate-change deniers, the messianic delusions of the would-be geoengineers, and the tragic defeatism of too many mainstream green initiatives. And she demonstrates precisely why the market has not—and cannot—fix the climate crisis but will instead make things worse, with ever more extreme and ecologically damaging extraction methods, accompanied by rampant disaster capitalism. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you,, and at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.



follow InnerSelf on


 Get The Latest By Email



The Day Of Reckoning Has Come For The GOP
by Robert Jennings,
The Republican party is no longer a pro-America political party. It is an illegitimate pseudo-political party full of radicals and reactionaries whose stated goal is to disrupt, destabilize, and…
Why Donald Trump Could Be History's Biggest Loser
by Robert Jennings,
Updated July 2, 20020 - This whole coronavirus pandemic is costing a fortune, maybe 2 or 3 or 4 fortunes, all of unknown size. Oh yeah, and, hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, of people will die…
Blue-Eyes vs Brown Eyes: How Racism is Taught
by Marie T. Russell, InnerSelf
In this 1992 Oprah Show episode, award-winning anti-racism activist and educator Jane Elliott taught the audience a tough lesson about racism by demonstrating just how easy it is to learn prejudice.
A Change Is Gonna Come...
by Marie T. Russell, InnerSelf
(May 30, 2020) As I watch the news on the events in Philadephia and other cities in the country, my heart aches for what is transpiring. I know that this is part of the greater change that is taking…
A Song Can Uplift the Heart and Soul
by Marie T. Russell, InnerSelf
I have several ways that I use to clear the darkness from my mind when I find it has crept in. One is gardening, or spending time in nature. The other is silence. Another way is reading. And one that…