By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics, American Military University
Hurricanes are a common occurrence along the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “Hurricanes are the nation’s deadliest, single-day natural disaster.” Excessive winds, storm surges, flooding, and tornadoes are all probable with a tropical depression, tropical storm, or hurricane. A single event can virtually wipe a city off the map, resulting in months of repairs, cleanup and recovery efforts.
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2020 Hurricane Outlook
NOAA predicted an above-normal 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, with 13 to 19 named storms, of which three to six will be major hurricanes. Hurricane season typically occurs between June 1 and November 30.
This year, however, the first two named storms, Arthur and Bertha, occurred before the season officially began. In addition, Cristobal then made history when it became the earliest third-named storm to reach tropical storm status on June 2. This broke the previous record of June 5, 2016, by Tropical Storm Colin.
Whether you attribute this early appearance of tropical storms to an increase in Saharan dust, global warming, or El Nino/La Nina, hurricanes have taken a back seat in the nation’s attention to COVID-19, among other breaking news. This is problematic because not only is early detection and warning of such dangerous storms critical, but an early response by residents, emergency responders, and government officials saves lives.
This triple threat — an overactive hurricane season, a lack of emphasis on preparedness and limited supplies — can lead to the “perfect storm.” The perfect storm is made worse when the storm track, the projected path of the hurricane, strikes major cities because large hurricanes can span over 300 miles in diameter.
From Texas to New England, including Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, the word hurricane often elicits bad memories of inaccurate forecasts that resulted in the loss of lives and property. This, coupled with the new social distancing guidelines prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, is a new challenge for emergency management to shelter displaced persons in the weeks and months following a storm’s landfall.
The COVID-19 Factor
As the nation experiences an uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases in more than 14 states, hospitals are reporting they are already at capacity and are sounding the alarm for assistance. Fear of contracting COVID-19 might lead residents in hurricane areas to make the critical decision to defy evacuation orders and shelter in place, out of fear of contracting COVID-19 by going into a shelter filled with strangers.
As a result of COVID-19, many stores report shortages of cleaning supplies, toilet paper, meat, bottled water and seasonal foods. These items last mere minutes on the shelves.
Grocery stores have resorted to limiting the number of items per customer to prevent hoarding; they also set aside special store hours for vulnerable populations to shop. Plywood used to board up windows in homes in hurricane-prone areas is in short supply.
Hurricane Preparedness Is the Key
So how do we protect ourselves from harm and ensure our safety when a strong hurricane strikes in the midst of a global pandemic? While there is no one answer, past hurricane seasons have proven that it only takes one to lead to catastrophe. Websites like Ready.gov are a great resource to provide a list of items needed to survive a major hurricane. Generators, emergency kits, food supplies for people and pets, battery-operated radios, flashlights, and a family safety plan can save lives.
America’s media -- print, television, radio, internet, and social media -- must make a concerted effort to provide information to everyone in real time. For example, social media sites such as Facebook provide a mechanism for people to mark themselves as “safe.” This simple act can reduce the number of phone calls to loved ones and help first responders accurately assess the safety and location of residents in need of assistance.
Emergency managers need to communicate expectations in advance of a storm to ensure that residents and first responders plan early. This includes mailing pamphlets with safety and evacuation procedures, providing assistance websites in multiple languages, and airing safety preparedness videos targeted at children and adults.
Governments at all levels need to provide the needed disaster relief before, during and after a hurricane makes landfall. While there is no foolproof plan, statistics show that early communication, accurate forecasts and swift government response lead to an informed community and save lives.
About the Author
Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is a professor at American Military University and has 20 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.