Texas State professor tackles questions amid hurricane season, COVID concerns
As emergency response officials continue to shape natural disaster response, existing challenges present during previous years are now coupled with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Dr. Eduardo Perez, an associate professor in the Ingram School of Engineering, his primary research involves the disaster relief effort provided by food banks. It is a three-prong approach – local execution, state management, and federal support.
“It’s a team sport,” Perez said. “The pandemic is likely to create a roadblock for local responses. My research is now concerned with the resource limitations imposed by the pandemic. Many of the first waves of response that survivors depend on during a disaster, including first responders, neighbors helping neighbors and volunteers who travel from out of state to help with clean-up, cooking and donate much needed supplies, will all be constrained because of the public health crisis.”
Considering Tropical Storm Cristobal in the Gulf of Mexico, which slammed into the Louisiana coast on Sunday, agencies such as the Red Cross are getting an early test of revised evacuation protocols as they coordinate with various state officials. The team response includes identifying and prepping hotels and dormitories that can be used as shelters. It is a process to address not only Cristobal, but also future challenges. “Chances are that future disasters could impact more people than hotels and dorms can accommodate,” Perez said. “If a shelter is needed, they will have to make sure it is safe enough that families feel secure evacuating there.”
That means additional steps compared to previous years. Instituting temperature checks at the door, requiring everyone to wear masks, creating a separate facility for evacuees with COVID-19 symptoms, staffing the shelter with healthcare workers, separating beds six feet apart, and serving meals individually rather than cafeteria-style.
As authorities tackle those needs, Perez and his peers are tracking specific information during the hurricane season. “We are tracking COVID-19 epidemiological models for the state of Texas and also the spread of the virus,” Perez said. “These models may be highly-sensitive to natural disasters, and thus inclusion of seasonal and or stochastic events might better enable worst-case scenarios to be considered. For example, Houston and the vicinity is one area that requires particular attention since the number of COVID-19 cases is very high and they are located in an area that is prone to hurricanes.”
Perez cited a couple of challenges that emergency response organizations face in a pandemic – limitation of resources the social distancing measures imposed due to the coronavirus. He focused on three keys to finding solutions using existing pandemic and natural disaster hybrid models to forecast scenarios and develop plans, making extensive use of weather forecasting and seasonal prediction models, and re-designing policy responses to different natural hazards.
The impact of seasonal natural hazards on the COVID-19 pandemic is largely predictable. That gives emergency planners one plus in their columns. There is the opportunity to develop plans ahead of time. The use of prediction models can help agencies review and implement emergency planning procedures weeks ahead of a meteorological event. “There is already an indication that the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season will be unusually active, so advance planning for major hurricanes in the U.S. over heavily populated cities during the COVID-19 pandemic could be beneficial,” Perez said.
During and after the storm, new measures will likely be part of shelter models. Suggestions include: decongestion strategies for densely populated camps and settlements, clear distancing protocols for the distribution of essential assistance, increasing space allocations for vulnerable populations in shelters, and the use of more emergency shelters with fewer people per shelter. “Large scale availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) to emergency responders would also help prevent the spread of infection,” Perez said.
Whether you evacuate during a natural disaster or want to stay sheltered at home during a pandemic, Perez has this advice: “Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, messaging from public health officials has been consistent,” Perez said. “‘Stay home and prevent the spread of the virus.’ But once a major hurricane is heading for the U.S., staying home will prove too dangerous for residents of high-risk areas.”