There are currently three tropical systems stalking the earth: Typhoon Vongfong has just swept through the Philippines, causing significant but not catastrophic damage. There are two “invest” (potential storms), one off Florida, and one in the Bay of Bengal (as of noon, a tropical depression being tracked as IO012020). Here is the “big picture” for this morning … of these, the one to watch is the one in the Bay of Bengal; it has the potential to be deadly if it hits the highly populated coasts of West Bengal and Bangladesh.
Hurricane planning presents difficult issues in the best of times. While Emergency Managers and politicians don’t like to think of it this way, and often simplistically (and wrongly in my view) present it to the public as a “err on the side of caution with few consequences” kind of thing, in fact when you evacuate an area you are disrupting society, and that carries with it both economic and human life consequences, especially for the elderly, infirm, and at the lower end of the economic spectrum for whom there is little safety net. If you dig into the mortality statistics, every evacuation has killed people. The gamble is that you are saving more people than you are killing.
In recent years, with the move away from a “civil defense” approach to emergency management and towards a more “law enforcement” based approach, larger and larger populations are included in evacuations. I’ve discussed this before: the current philosophy in the US is that you want to get all “non essential” people out of disaster areas until basic services are restored (electricity, streets clear, internet and cable TV back on 😛 ). In other words, to be blunt, the risk threshold has been changed from “life and limb” to “irritable and inconvenienced.” So emergency managers have fallen in to the habit of pretty widespread evacuations. I think this is a bad thing in general, but that’s a longer discussion. In the world with the SARS-COV-2 virus running around, whether that is a good approach or not is irrelevant: it has become potentially deadly.
In a pandemic, you want individuals to severely limit contact with people outside their immediate circle, to avoid spreading the disease. This is the basic concept behind “social distancing” and limiting travel: every additional person you come in to close contact with, be it from breathing the same air or touching the same surface, you increase your chances of getting – and spreading – the virus. This is especially true for travel. You really don’t want people traveling outside their immediate communities. Even one person can cause an explosive outbreak, as was seen in the Albany Georgia area. So you can see how an evacuation is absolutely incompatible with trying to keep a pandemic under control. Scattering people across the region (and in fact country), traveling by car (which means rest room visits, stopping to eat, and so forth, in multiple locations) staying in crowded shelters or hotels, then bringing them back together a few days or week later, is probably the worst possible thing you could do.
So, what should emergency managers do, and what should the general public do? My suggestion is to go back to basics. What is your risk from physical harm? And for that, we need to go back to the basic rule of thumb with respect to hurricanes: the majority of deaths are from storm surge and inland riverine flooding. Especially for weaker storms (Cat 1 or 2), wind is not such a direct threat to life if you live in a reasonably well buillt home (although having a tree fall on your house is terrifying, and potentially deadly, we’re talking about overall statistics here). So the cardinal rule is “evacuate from water, shelter from wind” with the caveat that for mobile homes, almost any winds above tropical storm strength are potentially deadly, so they need to seek shelter.
And this is where additional planning needs to take place. In recent years there has been a trend in coastal counties to not open local shelters. This should change. Now. There is absolutely no reason why, in Chatham County GA for example, there should not be shelters in-county for category 1 and tropical storm purposes. Yes, absolutely, we need to get people off the islands and out of mobile homes. But sending them far inland is a problem. In a COVID19 world this becomes more critical, as we really don’t want people having to travel great distances to crowded shelters and exposing themselves to people outside the community – both for their safety and ours.
For Category 2 it becomes a bit dicey but evacuating the county makes sense, and for a direct Category 3 landfall potential clearly the entire county should go, even in a potential pandemic. Bypassing storms such as we have had in recent years are always tricky. In all cases, however, the focus needs to be on the potential conditions in the county rather than the conditions in the storm. Just because it is a Category 2 hurricane offshore doesn’t mean it represents a Category 2 threat to the county.
Special needs populations like the elderly, those with immune problems or other physical issues like needing oxygen, etc., have special considerations. But, again, evacuate from water, shelter from wind is the cardinal rule, but with the twist that you need to be aware of the potential for longer term power outages as being a threat to life. If you are in a vulnerable location, by all means get out. In that case, if you have to evacuate, again try to stay in a known environment close to home. But the normal, usually minimized risks of stress and travel for the elderly are now compounded by the risk from COVID-19, moving the needle a bit more towards staying (if in a secure structure with supplies, considering power needs).
So the basic rules are: if in a flood zone, get out; the risk from the storm is greater than the risk from the virus. If in a mobile home, same advice. If in a reasonably well constructed house outside the flood zone, shelter in place up to Category two winds. By the way, now is the time to do some limb trimming, and if there is a dead/diseased tree nearby, think about that. Also pay particular attention to cleaning up potential sources of wind blown debris – lawn furniture, that junk in your backyard you’ve been meaning to get rid of, etc. Don’t wait to the last minute.
In most cases following the advice of your local emergency managers is the best thing to do. Some (hopefully all) are rethinking their plans, such as those in Florida, are publicly and proactively modifying their plans. Hurricane planning is unpleasant to think about in most years, but the COVID-19 outbreak makes it even more critical that you assess your individual situation and risks, and have a plan as to where you will go and what you will do. And figure out how much of your carefully hoarded toilet paper to take with you 😛 !