How the pandemic complicates mass evacuations

CityLab Daily

A perfect storm: Hurricane Laura rapidly intensified into a Category 4 storm overnight as it made landfall in Texas and Louisiana, becoming one of the most powerful to hit the Gulf region in more than a century. More than 350,000 people were left without power as the storm packed winds of up to 150 miles per hour. It's expected to continue bringing "catastrophic" storm surges, high winds and flooding as it moves inland as a weaker — but still destructive — storm. 

In the days and hours leading up to the storm, officials ordered mandatory and voluntary evacuations for more than 750,000 residents. And as climate experts predicted months ago, the Covid-19 pandemic further complicated the process. As I reported this week, a recent study suggests that evacuations could lead to thousands, if not tens of thousands, of new cases depending on how well emergency planners can strategically direct evacuees on where to seek shelter.

"This takes an awful lot of planning ahead of time, and there's a little bit of randomness associated with this," David Abramson, a disaster expert at New York University, told me earlier this month. Compliance with evacuation orders can vary between 20% and 80%, and where evacuees go can depend on factors like individual behavior and socioeconomic circumstances. Concerns over contracting the coronavirus may influence resident decisions to stay put.

The collision of the pandemic and the Atlantic hurricane season is something local officials have been dreading, and preparing for. "Emergency managers and health departments have been thinking about this," Abramson said. Traditional shelters were set up in Texas and Louisiana, but with limited capacity to allow for social distancing. Many governments also set aside thousands of hotel rooms left vacant by the lack of tourism to allow people to distance. In Austin, Texas, emergency managers were prepared to house 3,000 evacuees in more than 1,000 empty hotel rooms, USA Today reports.

Even so, cities were not fully prepared for the influx of Laura evacuees. Austin ran out of hotel space early Wednesday, turning away new arrivals at the "rest stop" the city opened for people awaiting rooms. Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in a press briefing that hotels were filling up as some people bypassed the city to reserve rooms themselves. The city decided to house some evacuees in the Austin Convention Center — part of which is already being used as a field hospital for Covid patients — where officials say there will be 135 "shelter spaces" for families to isolate, local news site KXAN reports. Another official said masks will be given out, and that there will be proper screening.

The coming days will be crucial for officials to watch for potential spread of the coronavirus. "In the midst of another emergency, they may reprioritize what's important to them," Abramson said of evacuees. "They may say, 'It's more important for me to get out of the path of a hurricane than it is for me to keep a mask on my face,' and so they might reduce their attention and willingness to accept those distancing efforts."  

He says host cities should have ample personal protective equipment and adequate testing capability ready, though he acknowledged that will likely be a challenge. Nationally, there's still a shortage of PPE. And questions abound about the accuracy and deployment of the kind of rapid testing needed to prevent outbreaks — particularly for lower-income and minority populations, which tend to be hardest hit by extreme weather events. 

In some ways, Hurricane Laura is a preview of what's to come as the pandemic-battered U.S. enters the peak months of what experts predict to be an "extremely active" hurricane season in the Atlantic. "Having said all that, we've got a real mess on our hands," Abramson said.

-Linda Poon

More on CityLab

Welcome to the 'Pyrocene,' an Epoch of Runaway Fire
Fire scholar Stephen J. Pyne proposes a pyrocentric view of the last 10,000 years — and warns that California's wildfires herald a very combustible future. 
U.S. Scooter Ridership Surged in 2019. Now What?

A new report from the National Association of City Transportation Officials shows big gains for e-scooters before the pandemic — and signs that the micromobility boom could go on. 

U.K. to Pay People on Low Incomes If Isolating Due to Covid
The U.K. government said it will pay workers on low incomes 13 pounds ($17) a day if they are self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic, triggering a backlash from trade unions and council leaders who argue the amount is too little to make a difference.

What we're reading

  • Those hurricane maps don't mean what you think they mean (New York Times)
  • Still recovering from Harvey, Texans in Beaumont and Port Arthur are now preparing for a new hurricane during Covid-19 (Texas Tribune)
  • NBA Teams Are On Strike Over Police Brutality (New York Magazine)
  • The police shooting of Jacob Blake, explained (Vox)
  • Blanked-out spots on China's maps helped us uncover Xinjiang's camps (Buzzfeed)
  • The radical plan to save the fastest sinking city in the world (Medium)

Stay on your game | Get unparalleled access to two world-class news desks, covering developments across finance, economics, technology and sports. Subscribe to today and get complimentary access to The Athletic.



Popular posts from this blog

Mulan DID NOT make $250 million and the future of film releases

Stars Unite for Table Reading of Fast Times At Ridgemont High

Chicken vs. cow