Quotes from Experts

Disaster response during COVID-19

SciLine reaches out to our network of scientific experts and poses commonly asked questions about newsworthy topics. Reporters can use these responses in news stories, with attribution to the expert.

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July 1, 2020


How might state- and community-level disaster response change during the COVID-19 pandemic?


“COVID-19 has created a unique set of new problems for disaster response in the future. In most cases, disaster response includes federal, state, and local communities pulling together to assist in responding to a disaster. Often, that involves people working in spaces that do not maintain a safe social distance. Filling sandbags, evacuating building contents, and cleaning up after a tornado all involve activities where people are in close proximity to one another. For some communities, alternatives will have to be utilized such as sand barriers that can be mechanically filled, shelter-in-place instead of public sheltering, and the use of protective wear during disaster clean-up. A one-size-fits-all approach nationally will not work. Each community is unique and so is the disaster’s impacts.” (Posted July 1, 2020)

Dr. Shane Hubbard
Research Scientist, Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin – Madison

“• Disaster response will be heavily impacted by reduced number of volunteers. The majority of disaster volunteers are in the demographic at highest risk for severe infection. Consequently, they should not and cannot take the risk to volunteer as they usually do, but organizations will be hesitant to deploy them due to increased infection risk and liability.

“• Disaster donations are certain to take a hit given the number of generous individuals, small businesses and organizations facing uncertain economic times, widespread job loss, underemployment, furloughs, company cuts and business closures. They may not be in a position to donate their time, skills or money to disaster response.

“• Mutual Aid and Emergency Management Compacts are central disaster response support agreements between local, state, tribal and territorial jurisdictions. These will be singularly difficult to fulfill because if a jurisdiction has not yet been significantly affected there is a possibility it still may in the contracted multi-wave pandemic.

“• Sheltering options will have to be reconfigured to accommodate people with the public health distancing recommendations. Additionally, sheltering should also prepare to supply thermometers, masks, and gloves to evacuees and shelter staff.

“• After a disaster, Individual and Small Business Assistance application processes may be slowed down due to the sheer volume of COVID-19-related applicants and limited federal staffing.

“• State- and community- level disaster response during the pandemic will inadvertently be impacted by the lack of a nationally cohesive COVID-19 response approach.

“• State- and community- level disaster response will be significantly impacted in locations where data policy does not disaggregate data by demographics—e.g. age, race and ethnicity. The lack of comprehensive and transparent data collection, compilation, analysis and dissemination will result in less effective, ill-advised pandemic decision making.

“• Island states and territories will continue to be disproportionally affected by COVID-19 impacts due to limited civil aviation travel. This not only impacts responding volunteer team access to the islands and territories, but also residents’ ability to effectively and safely evacuate during hurricanes.” (Posted July 1, 2020)

Njoki Mwarumba, PhD
Department of Emergency Management and Disaster Science, University of Nebraska, Omaha

“Right now, our best guess is that there will be a trade-off with risk-taking actions if multiple hazard threats arise for a population. For example, most people seem to be more concerned about COVID-19 affecting them than tornadoes or other natural hazards. This is likely due to their perception of risk and inherent biases (they think they are less likely to be struck by a hazard compared to contracting COVID-19). However, we have been surprised before by research that has investigated risk perception within vulnerable populations. Specifically, we have learned that many mobile/manufactured housing residents know more about tornado threats and the importance of taking proper shelter than those who live in permanent homes. Thus, the narrative that mobile/manufactured housing residents know little about tornadoes is false. This could also be the case with COVID-19 and other concurrent hazards such as tornadoes, tropical storms, and wildland fires. Residents in areas that commonly experience such hazards may properly understand and weight the risk of COVID-19 and a natural hazard impact. We certainly hope so. Nevertheless, state- and community-level disaster response will likely have to consider social distancing guidelines within the context of evacuation or sheltering practices for natural hazards during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, we are still unsure of the specific practical differences that they might face during the pandemic.” (Posted July 1, 2020)

Stephen Strader, PhD
Assistant Professor, Villanova University, Department of Geography and the Environment

Has the pandemic created a shortage of critical disaster-response supplies or personnel?


“Through June of 2020 the US has been fortunate not to have experienced the number of disasters we have seen in recent history in the first half of the year. The earthquakes in Puerto Rico and regional flooding have been the largest disasters aside from COVID-19. Flooding nationally has been lower than in recent years and severe weather disasters such as tornadoes are 17% below average from January through June 2020. As we enter a hurricane season that is forecasted to be above normal, communities and individuals should be doing their part to have appropriate stocks of necessary items. A disaster preparedness kit should be in every home that includes essentials like batteries, three days of nonperishable foods, and water. From what I hear from emergency managers, they are experiencing the same types of shortages as most Americans (e.g., longer wait times for certain electronics, some food types, and office supplies), but are not experiencing shortages to those items we deem critical in emergencies and disasters.” (Posted July 1, 2020)

Dr. Shane Hubbard
Research Scientist, Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin – Madison

“• Current critical disaster-response supplies and personnel shortage is not a creation of COVID-19 pandemic. It is a reflection of the abject failure of imagination and leadership. It is a failure to accord requisite thought and action as recommended by infectious disease scientists, public health and emergency management professionals, and academics.

“• Current critical disaster-response supplies and personnel shortage is a failure in adopting disaster cycle management, defunding of public health professionals, programs and organizations, and a politicization of the pandemic.

“• Current critical disaster-response supplies and personnel shortage is a consequence of unarticulated and often confused national priorities.” (Posted July 1, 2020)

Njoki Mwarumba, PhD
Department of Emergency Management and Disaster Science, University of Nebraska, Omaha

When evacuation orders are issued, how can individuals weigh the relative risks of acquiring or spreading COVID-19, versus staying in place?


“First, it’s about the risk of the disaster to the individual. For example, a person in a flood zone or in close proximity to a coastline during a hurricane, will need to seek appropriate shelter if their residence is not resilient to the disaster. People at risk should take a survey of themselves, asking: First, what is the risk to myself and my residence for this disaster event? Second, what is my risk of adverse reactions to COVID-19? Third, do I have a family member or friend that could shelter me (who is not in harm’s way) if I need to evacuate? Fourth, if public sheltering is my only option, do I have proper the personal protective wear to shelter there? As in any disaster, the appropriate time to prepare for a disaster is now. Those people in vulnerable areas should be planning and preparing today so they may be safe when disaster comes during the COVID-19 pandemic.” (Posted July 1, 2020)

Dr. Shane Hubbard
Research Scientist, Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin – Madison

“Evacuation orders will need to be issued with additional consideration for extra time necessary to implement physical distancing to limit congestion during evacuation.” (Posted July 1, 2020)

Njoki Mwarumba, PhD
Department of Emergency Management and Disaster Science, University of Nebraska, Omaha

“It seems likely that individuals will continue to seek shelter from natural hazards even during the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, if a major hurricane is destined to make landfall along the Florida coast, it is likely that potentially exposed populations will still evacuate inland. Where and when they go is a difficult question that many researchers and emergency managers have yet to answer. The difference between standard evacuation and COVID-19 pandemic evacuations might be that most people will continue practicing social distancing whilst they are seeking refuge from the other hazard. I would be surprised when the time comes and a hurricane is taking aim on the coast, if people continue to shelter in place for specific reasons related to COVID-19. We are currently investigating these issues and distilling results on the topic, so forthcoming data will clarify expected behavior.” (Posted July 1, 2020)

Stephen Strader, PhD
Assistant Professor, Villanova University, Department of Geography and the Environment

How might already-vulnerable populations be disproportionately harmed by disasters during the pandemic?


“We find that people with lower incomes are the groups that have the highest impacts from disasters. Given the current situation of high unemployment, those groups will have a compounded impact from COVID-19 and a natural disaster. It will be important to identify those groups ahead of any disaster and to ensure resources are provided once the disaster strikes. Leveraging geospatial modeling techniques allow emergency managers to find neighborhoods with the highest impacts and then target those post-disaster. Communities should take action in the pre-disaster environment to identify those groups and areas within the community.” (Posted July 1, 2020)

Dr. Shane Hubbard
Research Scientist, Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin – Madison

“• Social vulnerability is not static. There are people who have been rendered ‘newly vulnerable’ in the COVID-19 reality that require new agency and protection. An example of this population ranges from people who are experiencing Sinophobia, survivor stigma, and discrimination for choosing to implement public health recommendations such as the wearing of masks.

“• Already vulnerable populations may be exposed to additionally detrimental impacts in seasonal disasters due to the limited availability of regular support networks.

“• People participating in mass street protests against racism, police brutality and various discriminatory practices stand the increased risk of COVID-19 transmission. First because of the high-density interaction with fellow protestors and second if arrested the confinement in small spaces while awaiting processing. If used, tear gas exacerbates coronavirus transmission from people coughing and aerosolizing the virus.” (Posted July 1, 2020)

Njoki Mwarumba, PhD
Department of Emergency Management and Disaster Science, University of Nebraska, Omaha

“Unfortunately, we are seeing COVID-19 cases rise in the exact wrong portions of the country. Areas where populations are more vulnerable to not only environmental hazards (e.g., tornadoes, tropical storms, wildland fires) but also biological hazards (e.g., viruses), are experiencing the greatest increase in COVID-19 cases. Specifically, those populations in rural areas are seeing rapid upticks in the number of those contracting COVID-19.

“Overall, this question is that Drs. Kevin Ash (University of Florida), Mike Egnoto (Walter Reed Army Institute), Kim Klockow-McClain (Cooperative Institution for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies), and myself are currently investigating. We know that vulnerable individuals will be adversely affected by COVID-19 compared to those who are more fortunate. However, we are not sure how to curb this expected outcome. This is what drives our research.” (Posted July 1, 2020)

Stephen Strader, PhD
Assistant Professor, Villanova University, Department of Geography and the Environment

What measures can be taken to ensure that emergency responders deployed to a disaster site are protected from COVID-19?


“Research has shown that proper social distancing, hygiene, and personal protective wear are the greatest defenses against COVID-19. In an emergency, our responders may not be able to adequately do all of those measures when saving a life or responding to the disaster. As when around people who are more susceptible to COVID-19, we all should be doing our part to make sure our first responders are protected. That means we all need to continue to social distance, use proper hygiene, and use a mask when in public places. Protecting them will protect all of us. Our first responders are trained to take the essential steps not to spread COVID-19 and will continue to do their part as well.” (Posted July 1, 2020)

Dr. Shane Hubbard
Research Scientist, Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin – Madison

“• Prior to deployment all first responders must first undertake public health training that incorporates public health interventions from a culturally and politically aware perspective.

“• Emergency responders should be sufficiently tested and equipped with requisite PPE for their work.” (Posted July 1, 2020)

Njoki Mwarumba, PhD
Department of Emergency Management and Disaster Science, University of Nebraska, Omaha

“I would recommend that this is left up to the local emergency managers (emphasis on local) with the support of state and federal emergency management. Historically, local emergency managers understand and know their county populations better than anyone. They are aware of subtle nuances or quirks about their residents. This is a huge asset and extremely valuable within the disaster response and recovery realm. The things that make us each individually successful in not contracting COVID-19 (wearing masks, frequently washing and disinfecting hands, social distancing, etc.) are the same practices that should be implemented where possible if natural hazards strike. Of course, this is difficult given limited space in shelters, but I’m not convinced that there is a perfect solution. Self-efficacy is going to be key and individuals need to be prepared as soon as possible for a natural hazard during the COVID-19 pandemic.” (Posted July 1, 2020)

Stephen Strader, PhD
Assistant Professor, Villanova University, Department of Geography and the Environment

Creative Commons LicenseThis page is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. License applies to text and video only. Journalists are free to use any text or video on this page with or without attribution to SciLine.

Dr. Shane Hubbard, Research Scientist, Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin – Madison

None

Njoki Mwarumba, PhD, Department of Emergency Management and Disaster Science, University of Nebraska, Omaha

Dr. Mwarumba is currently funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research as Co.PI on a study exploring ‘Destigmatizing Chinese Communities in the face of 2019-nCoV: Emergency Management Actions to Address Social Vulnerability in Toronto and Nairobi.’

Stephen Strader, PhD, Assistant Professor, Villanova University, Department of Geography and the Environment

None