Scientists projected that the 2020 hurricane season was going to be above average. Less than two weeks into the season, the early returns are that they were spot on. In fact, the storms almost beat them to the punch. Arthur and Bertha appeared before the official June 1st start of the North Atlantic hurricane season. Cristobal originated in the Pacific, crossed Central America and reformed in the Gulf of Mexico before making landfall. Any amount of hurricane activity can be costly. During a health pandemic it could be catastrophic.
Cristobal hit the Louisiana coast on Sunday, quickly losing tropical storm status, but dropping rain as it plowed up the Mississippi River before heading over the Great Lakes and into Canada. Thankfully not inflicting the kind of widespread damage in the U.S. we’ve seen the past few hurricane seasons. (The storm did kill many and inflict significant damage in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico).
There’s no good time to have an above average hurricane season. But in the midst of a pandemic is a particularly bad time. It’s not just because people and businesses have suffered, it’s that many of the measures to mitigate risk in a pandemic go out the door. You can’t social distance rescues of people stranded on a roof. Shelters are typically packed. Sufficient personal protective equipment may not be available or be ruined. Potentially overworked and under-staffed hospitals running on generators. You get the picture.
Disaster response officials need to be planning how they will adapt to meet this new reality. How do you protect first responders, how will evacuation centers and their personnel be situated and managed? How to deal with those who are self-quarantined because of COVID-19 exposure before the disaster struck?
Unfortunately, well-thought out disaster preparation is hard to do even when we are not living through a global health pandemic and economic recession. Budgeting for emergencies isn’t glamorous. It requires lawmakers make tough decisions to not fund competing priorities. And when disaster does not strike, it’s all too tempting to spend that emergency fund on something else, or water down what qualifies as a disaster.
And that is why preparedness and mitigation is key.
Natural disasters have shown us that for every dollar spent on mitigation, we save an estimated six on disaster response. And we’ve spent a lot on disaster response. Nearly half a trillion dollars in the last 15 years. And that doesn’t include the federal flood insurance program with its wasteful and harmful cross-subsidies and has borrowed nearly $40 billion from U.S. taxpayers
But too much cash goes out the door with too few strings attached. States and communities must take measures to reduce risk and use funds to “pre-spond” the inevitable next disaster. Every dollar spent should help ensure that a future dollar doesn’t need to be spent on the same thing in the future. We’ve long advocated for policymakers to shift more of their energy, and public resources, to pre-sponding to disasters. Many of these same lessons apply to the health pandemic.
We also know that disasters disproportionately affect the poor and disadvantaged communities and people of color. In some instances, vulnerable communities were effectively redlined into the floodplain or high-risk areas. These same constituencies are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
Overall, in the current pandemic-induced recession, millions are unemployed or underemployed – policymakers need to figure out how government will help those individuals in a way that makes them safer going forward.
And that gets to some of the longer-term actions. The pandemic isn’t going away any time soon. Climate change and more unpredictable and larger storms are our new normal as well as heat waves and wildfire. The nation’s debt clock just passed $26 trillion and with a $1.8 billion annual budget deficit staring us in the face, we are in truly hard times.
Hard times call for hard choices. These are hard times. Let’s make some better choices.