“Document, document, document.” This has always been the mantra for anyone in disaster recovery. Documentation and tracking everything you spend—and related justifications—are critical to ensure proper FEMA reimbursements. This March, however, experts were struck by an unfortunate new reality: Hurricane season will converge with the pandemic at its peak. And the mantra has become “plan now, plan now, plan now.”
Karen Estis, one of ICF’s disaster management consultants, puts it this way: “For months, the messaging has been all about social distancing. And now we’re inviting people to congregate in a shelter during a disaster. It’s a double-edged sword.” The first step for local emergency professionals is to make the shelters safe. Then you have to let everyone know they’re safe—and how safe they are.
It’s a lesson Karen learned first-hand in the middle of a pandemic the likes of which no one has ever seen. Shortly after COVID-19 shut down New York City, she began working with community hospitals and community centers to help them manage their quickly devised response plans. “The most heart-wrenching thing I had to do was to go through a hospital’s reimbursement sheets for what looked like building equipment,” she explains. “It was equipment to lift bodies into temporary morgues—something that really wasn’t addressed and had to be thrown together at the last minute.”
Though pandemic planning is only partially resolved, Karen, and others like her, must look ahead. Scientists predict somewhere between 19 and 25 named storms and hurricanes to hit the Eastern Seaboard alone between now and November 1. It’s inevitable many parts of the U.S. will face dueling crises, and things could quickly unravel.
FEMA released its guidance, Mass Care/Emergency Assistance Pandemic Planning Considerations in June, and it’s an excellent resource for communities. But due to decentralization of many disaster resources, local towns and municipalities must determine on their own what they will need and how to prepare. This brings us back to the “plan now” mantra and the three challenges every emergency manager needs to navigate.
Ensure resources are safe, secure, and ample
It starts with how you define the word “shelter.” Many municipalities are encouraging people to first try to shelter at home. If that’s not possible, join a family member elsewhere. A motel may be a safe, though often costly, option.
Not everyone has these options, however, and it’s imperative to find appropriate alternatives for our most vulnerable populations. The typical Red Cross shelter now requires more space for fewer people (60 square feet per person). It sounds complicated because it is—but it’s also possible with enough planning. With this in mind, a critical part of your plan should include considering other options such as local motels and campgrounds to manage the overflow.
Once each shelter is identified, you’ll need to establish plans for intake and screening, food distribution, and sleeping arrangements. Can evacuees submit their forms electronically? Who will make and package meals and how will they be distributed? How can you safely keep families together? Where will pets go if the space you would normally reserve for them is now needed to maintain a wider berth between family groups? Think about each aspect in terms of social distancing recommendations and CDC requirements, and for someone at the shelter who is high-risk or exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. Each variable requires its own plan.
You will also need to consider security. This includes hiring people who are trained and prepared to handle crowd dispersion as well as keeping supplies secure. And, of course, the shelters will need to remain clean at all times and have all surfaces regularly disinfected. Many of our clients are also incorporating ultraviolet light into their HVAC systems for added protection in their air quality.
Get volunteers properly trained—quickly
Understandably, there will be significant concern and anxiety about working at a shelter in the middle of a pandemic, and your volunteer numbers will be depleted. This means your team will need to quickly mobilize a new force of community volunteers. You may need to train them virtually to minimize exposures while maximizing daily operations. You may also need to be prepared to enlist shelter residents as shelter workers in the event that you run short of volunteers.
Establish an initial screening process as well as a process for intermittent screenings for those already at the shelter. Train staff on how to use all appropriate equipment—including thermometers and N95 masks—what to look for, and when to involve the appropriate authorities (police, fire, emergency medical services). You will also need to determine shelter roles and responsibilities such as safety officers, communications managers, and health services leaders.
Shelters must be equipped with a plan for telehealth and virtual care, and you will need to identify healthcare workers (including medical students) to help coordinate care. Additionally, a list of medical facilities to refer clients to—as well as plans to transport clients to and from the shelter—must be readily available at all times.
Identify—and isolate—people who are high-risk, asymptomatic, or symptomatic
This brings us to our third challenge: how to ensure the wellness of everyone at the shelter. Volunteers and evacuees alike will include those who are asymptomatic or survivors of COVID-19. Many will be at-risk and some will have the disease.
You will need to establish protocols for people in each category, and have enough resources and strategies to test, track, and isolate. Identify a consistent and reliable supply chain for treatment drugs other than PPE and medical supplies. To do this effectively, engage health care coalitions—these organizations can help you coordinate with vendors to ensure sufficient supplies.
Additional shelter planning resources for emergency managers
It’s critical to start planning now, have enough space, and do as much virtually as you can. You will also need to craft your plans based on FEMA’s operational posture and create a shared understanding of expectations between FEMA and state, local, and tribal agencies prior to—and throughout—the hurricane season. For additional resources and support, review FEMA’s policy guide for the 2020 Hurricane season and download our sheltering considerations guide to help shape your specific plans. By taking the time to prepare now, you will be ready to shelter your community from the major storms of 2020—even as the pandemic continues.