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Two hundred yards to safety, death was fifty yards behind

As the SARS-CoV2/COVID-19 pandemic continues to work its way across the U.S. and the globe, the United States is entering hurricane season in the southeast and Gulf Coast states and wildfire season in the western U.S.

Dealing with a pandemic would be a major undertaking for federal, state, and municipal governments in the best of times. Add preparing to conduct emergency management and disaster response for the regular, seasonal weather and climate-related events, like hurricanes and wildfires, that occur year-in and year-out and the special challenge becomes apparent.

Picture from the Decker Fire Media Briefing on Oct. 2, 2019
(Photo by Taylor Sumners)

Having to do the latter– while dealing with the former — presents federal, state, and municipal emergency managers, as well as other government officials such as governors, mayors, local law enforcement, and public health officials, as well as non-governmental aid groups, with extraordinary challenges.

In order to get ahead of these problems, to ” Think Security”, it is necessary for these officials to begin to develop effective strategies to deal with the unique challenges that far too many Americans will be facing this year.

There are three phases to emergency management and disaster response: emergency, rehabilitation, and restoration.

In the emergency response phase, the focus is on getting to the affected area or areas, initially assessing what needs to be done, and getting to the work of  assistance and response as quickly as possible. It also includes a focus on lifesaving missions and the delivery of emergency supplies, including medical assistance.

Phase two, rehabilitation, focuses on building off of the initial response and moving towards stabilization in order to facilitate long term restorations of essential services and a return to a normal routine. The focus in this phase is on restoring the affected communities, including the essential services provided by the state and local governments, to the levels of functionality that existed prior to the disaster. This is intended to get the required infrastructure back into place and running so that state and local governments can begin to provide for the health and welfare needs of the population.

The third phase, restoration, is concerned with capitalizing on successes from the first two stages, consolidating them, and then expanding on them by assisting the affected areas with building out infrastructure, services, and facilitating disaster proofing through hardening of vulnerable sites.

During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the basic three phases of emergency management and disaster response are still the three key areas requiring strategic planning. However, the SARS-CoV2/COVID-19 pandemic creates significant challenges and complications that do not normally exist for emergency managers and disaster response professionals.

Specifically, this includes the need to evacuate significantly large populations. Consider a hurricane in the greater Tampa Bay area of Florida or New Orleans,  or the suburban areas surrounding Los Angeles, or the communities of the Arkansas River Valley during a wildfire.  At the same time, health and emergency managers must maintain the conditions to create safe social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Normally, during the emergency phase of a response, those in the path of a hurricane or a wildfire would be both encouraged to evacuate to safety ahead of time and/or evacuate to safety should the hurricane or wildfire change direction. Often this relies on the use of shelters set up in a variety of venues and locations to house the evacuees for days to weeks until they can return to their homes.

Emergency management and disaster response planners, as well as governors and mayors, public health officials, law enforcement, and emergency service responders must begin to plan immediately for how to conduct this emergency phase of the response. At the same time,  they need to prepare for what may be a longer rehabilitation phase for those that cannot be returned home quickly because of significant property damage.

The way we normally deal with evacuees in group shelters is simply not going to be appropriate right now. The risk of creating a community spread of COVID-19 will further exacerbate both the damage from the pandemic and the natural disaster.

Similarly, state and local officials should be strategically thinking now about how to ensure that vital supplies necessary for individuals to prepare for hurricane or wildfire season can be made available.

The U.S. supply chain is still stressed due to the pandemic, considering its almost overnight shift of people from office/out-to-eat, to stay-at-home orders. The shift makes it hard for individual Americans to simply print out their state’s or county’s hurricane or wildfire season preparedness checklist, go to the store, and stock up now, in case the worst should happen over the next several months.

Items such as bleach and cleaning supplies are still in short supply in places where people should be preparing now, for bad hurricane or wildfire season. The medical supply chain is also still stressed across the U.S. As a result, state and local health officials need to think about the unique challenges of trying to maintain sufficient stocks of personal protective equipment, medical equipment, and other medical supplies for dealing with seasonal emergency management and disaster response while at the same time still ensuring they are continuing to  to deal with the existing pandemic.

Failure to plan and prepare now means failure to develop feasible, acceptable, and suitable strategies to deal with an active natural emergency and disaster season. Worse, failure to plan during an ongoing pandemic could increase the jeopardy from both emergencies.

Without strategies in place that drive planning that can, in turn, drive the actual responses, the U.S. is going to be in for a long, difficult summer and fall.

State and local officials – from governors to mayors to county commissioners to public health officials to state and local law enforcement and emergency services leadership to emergency managers – need to be Thinking Security now. Doing so could prepare them so they are not overtaken by events and can respond in ways that manage and mitigate not only seasonal natural emergencies and disasters but also the pandemic as well.