Preparing For A Triple Whammy: Hurricanes, Pandemic And A Loss Of Public Confidence

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Even before the Atlantic Ocean's hurricane season officially got underway on June 1, two named storms had already developed in the tropics. One of them --- Tropical Storm Bertha — made landfall along the South Carolina coast. Federal forecasters  are predicting an above-average storm season with as many as ten hurricanes through the end of November.

For the past six years, storms have formed before the official start of hurricane season. Climate scientists say that the warming ocean provides energy for earlier, more intense storms.

But this storm season, coming amid a pandemic and, for some, a loss of trust in the nation's top leaders, is different than all others.

"Interestingly enough, we haven’t done a lot of the thinking around two crises simultaneously," says Samantha Phillips, Director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). "So this has been a new challenge for us."

Massachusetts rarely gets a full blown hurricane. Only 10 have made landfall in the state in 170 years — the last was Hurricane Bob in 1991. And rarer still are pandemics. The last one to hit the commonwealth was the 1918 Influenza.

Since this current pandemic struck, Phillips has been overseeing MEMA's response from a 1960’s-era fallout bunker in Framingham. It was not built with social distancing in mind.

"It is pretty cozy," she says. "It’s really kind of forced us to modernize and respond to the crisis."

The number of staff from state agencies overseeing emergency response from he bunker has been reduced by about half. Work stations have been spread out in the control room, where banks of screens monitor the situation from around the state. And now, much of MEMA’s emergency monitoring is done virtually.

To deal with the possibility of a hurricane evacuation during the pandemic, MEMA has stockpiled personal protective equipment in warehouses and will dispatch it where needed. Phillips says state emergency planners are sending cities and towns guidance to help protect, isolate, transport and house COVID-positive evacuees if there’s a hurricane.

"Sheltering is incredibly complicated when you have to maintain social distancing," Phillips says. "We’re looking at the hotel option, and if we need to set up in a gym, it would be half the capacity in a non-COVID environment."

Keeping the lights on is another issue. Representatives of the state's electric utilities say they have disaster plans in place.

"We’re an industry that actually has a pandemic plan," says Jim Hunt, executive vice president with Eversource. "Here in the Northeast, we get hurricane season, so our workforce is used to adapting to whatever conditions we need to adapt to."


But they admit that in the event of blackouts, it could take days, or even weeks, for workers to restore service statewide because of  social distancing rules.

Congress has approved $80 billion in federal disaster funding, twice as much as usual. In a recent White House briefing, federal emergency officials provided the president and vice president with details of their hurricane plans.

While both President Trump and Vice President Pence said that the country is "ready," Northeastern University Political Science Professor Daniel Aldrich warns that the problem with the White House hurricane plan is confidence in the messenger.

"We have lost a lot of trust that our society used to have," says Aldrich, director of Northeastern's Security and Resilience Program. "The deliberate use and misuse of information means a lot of us are getting information we don’t believe any more. That’s a big problem."

Aldrich is an expert in how social ties influence hurricane evacuation behavior, and he has first-hand experience with the subject.

"I evacuated in 2005 from Hurricane Katrina," he says. "Our home was destroyed in New Orleans. We didn’t know Mayor [Ray] Nagin, we didn’t know anyone in the city. We only left when our neighbor told us to leave. She was much more trustworthy to us."

According to Aldrich, the messenger is as important as the information itself.

"Right now, as hurricane season comes in, do we believe the government when they tell us it’s time to evacuate? Or do we think the government is using this as a political moment?" asks Aldrich. "That’s a big deal, because if people don’t believe they’re in danger, if they won’t leave a vulnerable spot. That means we have more injuries, more fatalities, we need more time to rescue those people."

Philips says this hurricane season, the pandemic makes it more important than ever for the public to be prepared and pay attention to emergency officials.

"Really be careful about heeding warnings," she says. "If there are calls to evacuate, do so sooner."

This segment aired on June 4, 2020.


Headshot of Bruce Gellerman

Bruce Gellerman Senior Reporter
Bruce Gellerman was a journalist and senior correspondent, frequently covering science, business, technology and the environment.



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