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Planning for concurrent disasters during the COVID-19 pandemic

May 4, 2020

It is early May of 2020. Americans have been practicing social distancing and sheltering in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic for almost two months. The widespread closure of schools, businesses, and government facilities has led to resource constraints, economic woes, and logistical challenges at all levels of society. And we’re about to enter natural disaster season. Midwest flooding, hurricanes, severe storms, and wildfires will sweep the country in the coming months—while we’re still dealing with COVID-19 restrictions.

Given this complexity, how should state, local, and federal emergency managers—along with businesses and communities—be thinking about and planning for concurrent disasters? In a climate of social distancing, how do you effectively conduct preliminary damage assessments and evacuate those in harm’s way? How do you convince residents in the path of a hurricane to leave their homes and relocate to safer ground—when they’re also being told to shelter in place due to COVID-19? And what role should technology play?

There’s a lot to unpack. In this podcast, Steven Kral, EMS Director for ATCS, PLC and Michael Junell, Director of Public Assistance for ICF, help those on the front lines of disaster management navigate a safe and effective path forward. Moderated by Marko Bourne, Senior Vice President of Disaster Management for ICF, the conversation covers topics such as:

  • How state and local governments can practice social distancing during preliminary damage assessments.
  • The role that technologies, such as drones and 3D imaging, can play in disaster management efforts during COVID-19.
  • How to plan for effective natural disaster evacuations.
  • Messaging challenges during concurrent disasters and how to tackle them.
  • Financial risks that localities need to consider.
  • How to get the public involved in volunteer efforts to lessen the strain on the government.
  • How to conduct effective disaster preparation exercises with neighboring states.

Full transcript below:

Marko: Hello and welcome again to ICF’s podcast series on COVID-19. My name is Marko Bourne. I'm the senior vice president for strategic initiatives at ICF. And it's been our pleasure to continue this series about COVID-19 response, recovery, and mitigation. Today's subject is timely in many respects. COVID-19 has been going on for several weeks now. And for the first time in U.S. history, all 50 states and territories have received major declarations of major disaster from the president of the United States.

Given that we are also in the spring of 2020, we are entering a period of increased normal seasonal weather activity. Midwest flooding, severe storms, and of course the start of hurricane season--which will begin in June--and wildfire season that will begin to kick up on the West Coast and in the Mountain States. All of those particular events pose unique challenges in an era where COVID-19 is forcing shelter in place, social distancing, and the closure of many businesses, schools, and government facilities.

And even though some states are beginning to open up certain activities within their states, there's no guarantee that, between now and the start of these severe event seasons, we aren't going to have concurrent events. As a matter of fact, it's a given. COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. There is likely also to be a fall resurgence--a second wave--which will coincide with sometimes the worst of the hurricane season. That said, how do we--as state and local emergency managers and federal emergency managers, and businesses and communities--need to be thinking about dealing with concurrent disasters will stress both resources, finances, and our thinking in how we address these challenges.

We have two experts today who are steeped in emergency management backgrounds--with a long history at the federal state and local level--and have been supporting clients across the United States for many years on these issues. First up, I'd like to introduce Mike Junell. Mike Junell is the director of public assistance at ICF. And he has served over 12 years in disaster management and public assistance programs--which is the infrastructure-based recovery programs that are managed by FEMA--working at the state and local level. He's served on some of the country's major disasters like Katrina in Louisiana, Maria in Puerto Rico, and as a public assistance subject matter expert. And has helped drive the $90 billion hurricane Maria recovery efforts in Puerto Rico while continue to advise other clients across the nation.

Mike was formerly a Texas commissioner on fire protection, a certified firefighter, and an EMT. And we're pleased to have Mike join us today. But we also have another guest and an expert from one of our team partners, at ATCS, Steve Kral. Steve is a Homeland Security and public safety professional who has over 21 years of program and project management experience in both the private and public sector environments. He's directed analytical and strategic planning projects for a range of federal, state, and local public safety clients. And has developed path-breaking work in assessing community resiliency, infrastructure assessments, all hazards planning, and assessment and evaluation of specific Homeland Security and emergency management programs.

Both Steve's and Mike's expertise are ways of communicating information to clients, at all levels of government, about things they need to consider during COVID-19 in preparation and in advance of these upcoming storm seasons that we know are starting--even as we speak today. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. And we appreciate your dedication to the nation and to this activity.

How to assess damage while socially distancing

Mike, I wanted to really start with you. And I think one of the challenges that we see coming out of COVID-19 are issues that the locals--especially the state and local applicants for public assistance, for individual assistance, etc.--are going to have to deal with. You know, when disasters happen, obviously there's a tremendous amount of activity that happens very early to try to gauge the level of disaster damage that's done, the preliminary damage assessments.

As we're in the middle of facing social distancing practices--the need to protect not only our frontline emergency service personnel--how should state and local governments especially, and ultimately FEMA officials, be thinking about practicing that social distancing and still doing preliminary damage assessments and site inspections?

Mike: Absolutely. Hey, Marko, you know, thanks for having me. I believe thatCOVID-19 has and will ultimately change the way we do business as a society. You know, we're starting to see businesses of all types, restaurants to doctors, they're changing their standard way of doing things so they can practice safe and effective social distancing. I truly believe that that's going to include how we prepare and recover from disasters from this point forward.

You know, a lot of the new technologies out there--there's a lot of virtual meeting platforms--and I think those are going to become very sophisticated going forward just because of their widespread usage, globally because of this COVID-19 pandemic. And I'm pretty confident that most of those platforms will be used in the majority of our engagements’ disaster management. And I think we can take advantage of these rapidly changing and improving platforms.

I recently read an article on strategy of slowly reopening the country. And one of the restaurant business owners said that, you know, so much has changed for them that he feels he is opening a new business for the first time. And I think that's true. I think everybody's going to have to change the way they do things. And I think disaster recovery and disaster preparedness--and disaster management as a whole--we're going to have to reprogram really how we do things when we're facing times when we have to practice social distancing, and have health concerns. For years at the FEMA level, we've been doing PDAs and site inspections, you know, with large gatherings of professionals of different backgrounds.

FEMA, state, local officials, we would always pair industry experts such as, structural engineers, and civil engineers, to the types of damages sustained by applicants. And then we would also pair them with different personnel from FEMA programs like environmental and hazard mitigation. So, you can see how we have, you know, boots-on-the-ground engagements grow to large number of personnel, large gatherings. And with us facing a global pandemic like COVID-19, that's not always healthy for us to be in close proximity in facilities and whatnot.

So, it's really not unheard of for states to perform PDAs in a quasi-remote fashion. States like Louisiana, North Carolina, Florida, they often have multiple declared events that overlap with each other. And that causes a strain on resources-- personnel become limited. So those states often have practiced a remote fashion PDA where they would send really limited personnel out and to gather information and report that back to a central location.

I think coupling that with a pandemic like COVID-19 would cause us to really improve on that and go to a more of a virtual platform to perform preliminary damage assessments, site inspections. And keep our personnel and our applicants, you know, safe from any health issues.

Marko: And Mike, one of the questions obviously is, in order to do that, we have to rely on technology--and we have advanced technology now that is even better than it was a few years ago. And to allow us much more ability to do more remote damage assessment work without having to send the army of boots-on-the-ground, so-to-speak. In recent years, that technology has increased. What are some of those technologies that have gained some traction that we've used in our work--and that you've seen states and locals use--in order to really push forward this notion of “you don't have to have a person everywhere?”

Mike: Absolutely, Marko. We began researching, developing and implementing the use of different state of the art technologies like drones and 3D imagery. We could reduce the number of people and personnel in facilities that weren't structurally sound--some of the buildings were contaminated. You know, they just had health issues after a disaster. And those facilities were somewhat unsafe really for large gatherings of people.

So, when we began researching these technologies, we thought we could implement them just to keep our personnel safe. We used the drones to get into remote areas, unsafe grounds. And we also have the 3D imagery where sometimes it still takes human interaction, but it's very limited to, you know, one or two people to take those images and take that data back to FEMA or counterparts. And then they have these full immersive interactive videos--and full documentation of really what we're looking at. And that limits exposure to the buildings.

A lot of times, with FEMA as well, you would have multiple site visits to go back and capture different areas that were just missed the first time. Well, these videos make that more efficient as well. But with COVID-19, we found that this technology is the perfect tool to keep our teams and clients healthy and practice social distancing while still gathering all of the data needed efficiently.

Marko: Certainly, the data that's being generated by these capabilities is critical because data drives decision making, data drives eligibility, knowing what the damage is. Because data is so much more important now than ever, especially when you're given, you know, large scale events, multiple activities going on. What are some of the things that state and locals both need to be thinking about now--in both the use of that data and the capabilities they need to actually manage that data, especially since much of it now will have to be remotely developed.

Mike: Right. Marko, we always feel that is paramount, you know, that our applicants and our clients alike, that they prepare ahead of the disaster. They begin developing their databases with the information about the facilities, about the types of claims that they may have. And they populate those beforehand. That makes it more efficient when the disaster hits. You know, there's a lot of database and systems out there. We record all of our data from our teams and clients into the system we develop called disastTRAX. But that gives us the ability to provide the necessary data, the complete data to our federal, state, and local partners very quickly so they can make decisions efficiently.

Where to safely evacuate while socially distancing

Marko: Thanks, Mike. I appreciate it. Steve, I'd like to bring you in now because, obviously, the efforts to collect damage data after the event is important, and we'll get back to that subject a little bit later when we're talking about the future. But there's a challenge that exists even pre-damage assessment--and that really revolves around the notion of there are events like hurricanes that require evacuations sheltering. In many states, that evacuation not only takes place within state, but quite frankly can take place from state to state.

For example, hurricanes that want to do a coast skimming exercise up the coast of Florida tend to drive Floridians to Georgia and into Alabama or North Carolina. And other states experience the same type of evacuation patterns, all of which raises interesting issues when it comes to evacuation during COVID-19, sheltering during COVID-19. So how do you think in terms of how state and local folks and the federal government need to be thinking about evacuations especially along coastal states during concurrent disasters?

Steve: Great question Marko. Actually, when looking at evacuations--and looking at it from both the state and locality level as well as the individual itself--I do believe that we need to start brushing off our MOUs with other states. So, if you're a state representative, you have to actually speak with the adjoining state in order to understand that if an evacuation needs to occur, how many people may you have to ship to that adjoining state. And it in turn, is that adjoining state willing to take on these evacuees? Because they may be going there for a short period of time. But we've seen in other disasters, as you know, that people may be going to another state for a significant amount of time. If that is the case, that adjoining state will now have an increase in social services that they're going to need to push out to the individuals coming into their state.

During this time of COVID-19 as you know, people are going to be asking themselves, “if we're accepting any evacuees, where are we going to place them?” Because we still have to meet these standards for social distancing, quarantining, and sheltering in place. So, instead of looking at these large scale shelters which we've had in the past, we're going to have to focus now on hotel space--putting individuals in hotels--as well as talking with our universities because at the university level, you may see that they have dorm space available. So that you can actually keep those social distancing standards.

This is also going to change the way that not only do we shelter individuals, but how do we actually feed the individuals as well. Because from the feeding standpoint, here it can no longer be that banquet style. You're going to have to deliver these meals door to door and how is that going to be handled when people are considering sheltering these particular evacuees?

Also, one of the things that you could do right now in order...If you are one of these states that you're potentially thinking a hurricane can actually hit you and you may have to evacuate, you may want to actually plan exercises around these particular scenarios right now with these adjoining states. So that you can work out those kinks associated with how these evacuees will come in, and actually how you're actually going to manage them once they're there in the adjoining state.

From an individual standpoint, Marko, you're going to have to look at how individuals are going to need to make the decision to evacuate. During COVID-19, we have placed a tremendous amount of emphasis on sheltering in place. Now, you may have to come out with a different message from an emergency manager standpoint and convince people that they will need to leave the safety of their home and actually evacuate to another area. I find this to be one of the biggest challenges that we're going to have now. Because of the fact that people will have to make this individual decision, whether they weigh out the storm and wait there within their homes or are they going to take the risk and go to the adjoining state and actually potentially have exposure to COVID-19. So those are some of the issues that are revolving around it from a state level, and also from an individual level. But it is the time to prepare to do the exercises now and to prepare individual plans accordingly.

How residents might react to evacuation plans

Marko: Thanks, Steve. That's a great point because I think one of the challenges around that kind of sheltering and evacuation is certainly around proximity. Perhaps there's a silver lining that the universities and school systems are closed now, which is actually allowing dorm space to be potentially available--which might not otherwise have been available had schools been in session. And obviously, the lack of travel that has existed at this time also has created a little bit for hotels, bed viability in terms of space available than it might otherwise have been. But all of that has to be preplanned and thought out ahead of time. If you had to kind of put your finger on one of the number one forecasted issues that a community is going to have if asked to evacuate due to an oncoming natural disaster, what might that be?

Steve: Again, Marko, it's going to go back to convincing people that they're going to need to leave the safety of their homes in order to go to another area that they're unfamiliar with. But where does the most danger lie for them? Is it that they sit there and wait out a particular hurricane for example? Or are they now going to go to an alternative state, have safety there? But again, we're dealing with this other disaster of the pandemic and we don't know how that will actually affect these individuals coming into the state.

Also, though, you also have these financial risks that are going to revolve around taking on the evacuees that we talked about, in regards to increased social services. But also once people actually leave the safety of their home and go to another adjoining area, they're going to start to consider, “well, do I actually need to reconsider where I actually am residing because of the dangers associated with a particular place, if I'm faced with two individual disasters? So, do I now stay in place or am I going to reside in my original state where I actually was just faced with the decision of two particular disasters? Or am I going to leave the safety of my home, go to an adjoining state--where it is more safe and secure--and maybe I can work and now reside there?”

So those are some of the questions that I know are coming up with individuals in regards to that thinking. But also, we also have the issues with students. Students right now, they may be going back into session come the fall timeframe. And in turn, how is it that the universities are going to be accepting these students and what is it going to look like if they still have to maintain social distancing standards? I know personally that we have a daughter who's in college right now. And that if she is actually going to go back to that university, how is it that if she does get COVID-19 and becomes ill, how is we as parents going to cope with that working with the university to get that information? So, Marko, I think it's a multitude of issues that individuals are faced with right now, but if we work through those particular scenarios now, we can be better prepared when they actually arrive at our doorstep.

What are the financial ramifications of concurrent crises

Marko: Yeah, certainly that preparation, Steve, is, and I'll include this, really an examination too of some of the financial risks that take place and localities are going to be faced with certain financial risks. Any disaster has a blow to the local economy, the tax base of any community. What do you view as some of those risks from a financial perspective that localities have to understand to be thinking about as you're looking at both pandemic and natural disaster coinciding?

Steve: So, we have all gotten used to working at home now. A lot of companies are shifting and realizing that do they actually need to have a fiscal office space or can they now become virtual. So, we're all getting into this mode of, we can actually probably work anywhere as long as we have an internet hookup and we have our computers and we're all set up in that fashion. So, if you have individuals that are faced with two disasters at the same time and then they go to another adjoining state, they may want to reside there. All of a sudden, you're going to have tax revenues significantly decrease. So, individual communities are going to need to convince their residents that they actually have plans in place, they know how to keep those individuals safe and that, in turn, once we're through the pandemic and once this other disaster is over, that they will be able to come back and they will be more resilient going forward.

But also, this leads us into companies too and how you're going to think about it at the community level on how to maintain your tax base--and making sure that the companies will still reside within your local community and how you need to work with them. So, these offices of economic development, as well as resiliency offices within your local community, need to be proactive in their approach right now from an emergency management standpoint. Reaching out to them, and making sure that they have their continuity of operations plans in place currently, so that when they are actually able to come back, that they can come back safely and that it's going to be a more resilient community going forward. So that has to be spoken about now, in order to make sure that they feel comfortable with coming back in and keeping that tax base solid at that local and state level.

Just recently--this past year--I worked on some of the California wildfires where in one evening, a particular community lost over 3,000 homes. They were the most expensive homes within that community. Their tax revenue dropped by 8% overnight. How is it that they're going to then make certain that people will come back in and rebuild and that they feel safe if another urban wildfire is to come in? So, that's one particular example that they've learned from to make sure that they're enhancing building codes and also, how are they actually managing the actual environment so that they could stop wildfires from entering into these urban type settings in the future.

Marko: Thanks, Steve. Mike, I want to bring you in for a second while we're talking about the financial issues. And really obviously there's a tremendous amount of financial assistance that's provided by the federal government, both under COVID-19, of course, but also under the normal disaster declaration project. And many states that are affected, especially by hurricanes, floods, and the wildfires have been dealing with past disasters while they're certainly susceptible to new ones.

And the financial support that is available is in many cases 75% federal funding for reimbursement and 25% state or local funding. But, whether it's an ongoing project or a new project, some of the state and local governments are going to have to really deal with handling slowdown and approvals, potential funding challenges, how projects keep moving. What are your thoughts on the financial aspect of the funding and the programs, especially as state locals interact with FEMA?

Mike: Absolutely. Marko, we're actually starting to see, you know, our public assistance program be affected, you know, by COVID in areas other than just like force account labor or medical related costs. We're starting to see actual facilities being affected by that. And what I mean is, we have applicants that are currently recovering from a past disaster where they have facilities being constructed and worked on, to repair them from a catastrophic event. And some of those construction costs now are starting to increase.

We've seen a decrease in manpower and labor. We've seen an increase in the cost of materials and then we've also seen a decrease in limited availability of materials due to manufacturing shortages in different areas. So, what we're seeing is, the cost of that construction project is to start increasing. And we're still working with local and regional officials with FEMA on how we're going to handle that. Under the current FEMA programs like 428, which has great benefits, but the applicants agree upon a predetermined amount, and that amount is then kept and those projects can no longer be versioned by FEMA.

And the increase in costs was unforeseen. And so, we're working with those state and local, or state and federal officials to try to figure out how FEMA anticipates how they will provide assistance for those increased costs that were unforeseen on previous disasters.

How to harness a community’s desire to help

Marko: That's a great point. And certainly the challenges around that really rely on good documentation because obviously understanding the supplies that maybe were available and used prior to COVID-19 affecting the supply chain and driving up costs then have to be measured and measured against the new costs or the ongoing costs that have changed as a result. And that requires some significant understanding, capture of cost, and discussion at all levels when it comes to this.

I think ultimately though it's state and local governments are also going to be wrestling with the notion of resources. We've seen a number of stories in major publications about potential shortfalls of emergency management officials at all level of government. Certainly, the use of technology is going to help in many ways make the larger need for a people footprint from a governmental perspective, perhaps lower. But at the same time, we're seeing a significant opportunity here, I think, to address how the public not only helps itself, but can help our communities at large as we all sit in our homes every day wondering, you know, “if we're not working our normal schedule from our home what do we do?” Watching TV was one thing, but what else can we be doing?

And, Steve, what kind of benefits can we, as a local community--as states, really--gather out of this pandemic effort, that can drive activity around community support and community preparedness so that there is a lesser of an impact on government when something happens in the next concurrent disaster?

Steve: Great question. I think right now you see that there are people that want to give back to the community. There's an outpouring of time right now as well as “how is it that I can actually support my community going forward,” and those feelings are strong. I do believe that people want to volunteer. So right now, I believe it's the perfect opportunity for local and state emergency managers to begin to reinforce that concept of volunteering. Get people in your neighborhood to go online, and maybe take an online cert course where individuals at that community level will understand how to help their other neighbors during a time of a future disaster.

If we have concurrent disasters, volunteers will be needed. And also, we're going to have to maintain those social distancing standards--but at the same time train them up in order to understand how to volunteer in their local community. Also, this is the perfect time for jurisdictions to go through how to actually look at their particular community--and how to become more resilient in the future. We're getting hit every day with those questions on, how is it that at the individual standpoint, and also at the locality, how can we become a more resilient community going forward. Not just in COVID-19, but other disasters as well. So, actually having those discussions in the local community going forward, I believe, right now is the greatest opportunity for everybody.

Marko: Thanks, Steve. Appreciate it. Mike, final thought from you on what a concurrent disaster means to state and local governments at this point and the one thing that you think that they absolutely need to do today to move forward and be ready for it.

Mike: I think the biggest thing that any local state government could do is just prepare for the disaster. Take a normal disaster that they're used to recovering from and step back and take a clear picture of how COVID-19 or a global pandemic with social distancing would affect that.

Marko: Appreciate it, Mike. And thank you. And I want to thank both you and Steve for joining us today. And to all that have been listening to the podcast series, we thank you for your continued interest. Listenership continues to go up, both this podcast, the accompanying Q&A session, the additional documents and resources will be made available shortly, and you'll be able to see links also to federal, state, and important additional information on how to address these challenges. And I want to thank ATCS for assisting us. And, Steve, thank you for joining us today.

We look forward to doing additional podcasts in the future and this particular subject will likely be the subject of a longer form webinar in the not too distant future. But we also have podcasts planning underway for duplication of benefits and long-term public health. But more importantly, we want to look in-depth at what the new normal might look like and how do we start achieving that as we look at both the mitigation programs that are in place now and the mitigation efforts that need to happen as a result of COVID-19. Thank you all for joining us. We appreciate your interest. Go to icf.com/insights for more details and we'll hear you on the next podcast. Thank you.

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