Why Shelter From the (Coronavirus) Storm Isn’t Always Safe

July 8, 2020
During an emergency evacuation, evacuees crowded together could end up as an opportunity for viral transmission. Above, thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors filling the Houston Astrodome Red Cross Shelter on Sept. 1, 2005, after being evacuated from New Orleans. Photo: Federal Emergency Management Agency/Andrea Booher, Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Why Shelter From the (Coronavirus) Storm Isn’t Always Safe

By Joseph A. Davis

It’s the season when disasters are plentiful. But the COVID-19 pandemic means disaster response is evolving.

Even in the best of times, deadly events like hurricanes, wildfires, floods and heat waves are difficult to anticipate. So effective evacuations can offer the best chance to save lives. 

Yes, sometimes, just getting people out saves lives. But saving people can also mean getting them to evacuate in time

It’s hard to erase the memory of video showing Louisiana residents waving from their rooftops to attract rescuers in 2005 amid the rising floodwaters of Katrina. Or to forget the 85 souls in Paradise, Calif., who could not escape 2018’s deadly Camp Fire


Why it matters

Now, in the coronavirus era, getting out of harm’s way is even less straightforward. That is, unless disaster planning evolves and evacuations are carefully designed to prevent the spread of disease.

Case in point: Heat waves. The Centers for Disease Control estimates excessive heat caused some 8,081 deaths between 1999 and 2010. And it seems to be getting worse (may require subscription). 

Your community may well have cooling centers to help people without air conditioning, especially the elderly, through a bad day. But sending seniors to a cooling center during a dangerous heat wave — without thinking through COVID-19 exposure — could be fatal. 

It’s not just heat waves. During a storm evacuation, cots crowded into a high school gym to accommodate evacuees may seem helpful, but could end up as an opportunity for viral transmission. 


The backstory

There are painful experiences with many disasters to learn from.

Hurricanes, we know, happen seasonally in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, from roughly June 1 to Nov. 30. But with climate change, we have found that season can sometimes expand. 

We also have some clue where the damage is likely to occur, since coastal regions are the most vulnerable. 

We sometimes forget that more danger comes from the torrential floods and surges accompanying these tropical storms than from the winds themselves. What is harder is to understand how far inland these dangers can sometimes extend.


Very often the first priority is the evacuation

itself — not the housing of the evacuees.


Local, state and federal governments do plan for hurricanes. But very often the first priority is the evacuation itself — not the housing of the evacuees. 

Katrina, again, offers a sad example. Many of the people who could not get out of New Orleans ended up sheltering at the Superdome. Without adequate supplies, sanitary systems or law enforcement, that structure itself became a new disaster

Katrina showed us, too, that the hospitals and nursing homes that were supposed to be taking care of vulnerable people could be quickly overwhelmed in a disaster. 

And another lesson came from the so-called “FEMA trailers,” the temporary living space given to refugees by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Because of poor manufacture, they turned out to emit formaldehyde, which threatened the health of their residents.


Going from bad to worse

If there is a generalized lesson, it is that we want to avoid getting out of the frying pan only to end up falling into the fire.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already offered some lessons along this line. 

One is about the extreme vulnerability of elderly and invalid people who populate nursing homes. There is evidence that the coronavirus presents a larger threat of fatality to them than other populations, merely because of their infirmities. 

Things are made worse by the environment of many nursing homes. Conditions may be crowded. Staff may be too few or untrained. Personal protective equipment may be in short supply. Visitors may bring infection in. 

While exact estimates are difficult, a New York Times team reported in May that a third of all U.S. coronavirus deaths are nursing home residents or workers. Around the same time, New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo (who has drawn praise for his handling of the state’s response to COVID-19) was criticized for sending virus patients who had been discharged from hospitals back to nursing homes

A case of frying pan and fire.


Story ideas

As a starting point, it is worth asking how the vulnerable (whether seniors, the sick or other vulnerable groups) will fare in the evacuation shelters that a particular community has made available for a specific emergency. 

Here are more questions that may lead to stories:

  • What is (are) some specific disasters to which your community or area may be most vulnerable? Storms? Floods? Wildfire? Heat waves? Earthquakes? Tsunamis?
  • What disaster planning (if any) has your community or area already done? Do plans include evacuation? How would it be managed? How will people be alerted? Where will they go? How will they get there?
  • Are disaster shelters included in your community’s plan? Where are they? Do they have enough capacity for victim population in normal circumstances? How would needs change if preventing transmission of a virus were required?
  • Would or could evacuees be tested for infection before sheltering?
  • Do your community’s shelter plans include infection control? Adequate distancing? Disinfectants? Masks? Soap and water? Bathrooms? Safe food? Emergency electric power? Medical support? Healthful ventilation and climate control?
  • What specific disaster conditions could make people more vulnerable to problems like COVID-19? Air pollution from smoke? Air pollution from other sources? Mold and mildew?
  • Consider special disasters that could threaten people with COVID-19 or other respiratory problems. For example, is your community near a petrochemical plant that could catch fire? A rail line where a train loaded with oil or other hazmat could derail and leak or catch fire?


Reporting resources

[Editor’s Note: Also see SEJournal’s recent Backgrounder, “Disaster Preparedness Key Amid Pandemic,” which also explores issues around evacuations and emergency readiness when facing storms, fires, toxic releases and more, and our recent TipSheet, “Coronavirus Reminds Journalists To Prepare for Public Health Emergencies.” Plus, check our SEJ.org’s COVID-19 Resources for Journalists.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 27. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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