A 2019 Regional Hurricane Risk Analysis financed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and undertaken by the firm Ingeniería Técnica y Científica S.A.S de Colombia found that Caribbean island states are indicatively at risk of suffering probable maximum losses of US$56 billion dollars for a probable 100-year cyclone.
Typically, Caribbean disaster managers simulate and plan for many event scenarios including pandemics, but very few, if any, plan for the annual management of hurricane response and recovery, within a scenario of an ongoing global pandemic. At the time of writing this blog, countries like Barbados and The Bahamas were on stay at home orders with 24-hour curfews; and some like Jamaica, were on 12-hour curfews with localized lockdown for some parishes.
The challenge to mobilize emergency response capabilities for a land-falling hurricane is high under these circumstances. With a pre-season outlook for 16 named storms this year, of which 8 are forecast to be hurricanes and 4 of which could strengthen into major hurricanes, this risk is further compounded.
Planning for emergency response under these circumstances will likely be both determined and impacted by several factors, including but not limited to:
1. Availability of Responders (nationally & regionally) and the Protection/Safety of Responders that are Capable of Mobilizing
In this regard, national disaster organizations (NDOs) and key sectors with emergency response responsibilities should go over the personnel rosters for their responder teams and appraise whether they will still be able to rely on their respective trained national and local responders. Such efforts could determine how they may have been affected by COVID-19, how many would be willing to mobilize for a response in a pandemic scenario, and if so, how many would be safely able to do so (e.g. those that have access to good personal protective equipment).
Going forward, at a national and regional level, consideration could be given to the development and maintenance of digital annual state of readiness of responder personnel inventories that might be available from government, civil society, and private sectors.
NDOs should also seek to determine if, under regional “mutual aid” response mechanisms, sister nation states would still be willing to send and/or release their own responders under the pandemic circumstances.
2. Supply Chain Logistics and the Availability of Relief Supplies, including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
With global supply chains and transport logistics being stressed and/or suppressed, the timely arrival of critical relief supplies including PPE may be a challenge. Traditional logistic routes and service providers may be under conditional orders to restrict and/or block shipment and transshipment of cargo. Emergency managers should review the levels and composition of their national relief supply stockpiles and their logistics arrangements to be confident that they have the supplies needed. Additionally, stockpiles should be brought under electronic inventory management systems, so that relief supply inventory flows can be better tracked in real time and more efficient, faster re-stocking can be enabled.
3. Early Evacuation, and Coping Capacity for Emergency Sheltering of Displaced Populations with Social Distancing
As public health requirements for control and containment of infection spread, more specialized preparation and lead time for mass evacuation of exposed and/or vulnerable special needs and able-bodied populations will be required. Requirements such as social distancing and provision for the screening and/or separation of the susceptible, sick, and/or infected, along with the need for resilient-emergency-shelter-space will need to be assessed. Modified protocols for shelter management will also be required. Public-private partnership agreements for the use of empty hotels for use as public shelters should also be explored.
The pandemic also further compels the review and increased strengthening of existing biosecurity protocols, and the development of new biosecurity protocols (ideally at regional level or as regional standards) in the context of conventional hurricane response. Prior biosecurity emphasis has traditionally been more focused on the management of dead bodies and animals and the minimization of water, sanitation and hygiene related diseases and not air transmitted, respiratory ones.
Similar to how public health officials are using epidemiological curves as a predictor of the maximum number of beds that will be necessary for serious COVID-19 cases, emergency managers should also be reviewing their estimates and assumptions on the likely maximum numbers of disaster displaced that will require shelter from a 100 or 50 year hurricane, versus the number of available shelters and minimum per person space requirements (so called “coping capacities”).
4. Provision of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Services
Critical to life-saving and infectious disease management is the provision of WASH services. Adding the pandemic to the hurricane response scenario, pre-planning for the logistics and provision of these services, along with personal hygiene kits, particularly in known water scarce localities is a critically important undertaking.
5. Deployment and Pre-positioning of Veteran Emergency Response Managers/Coordinators
Successful responses are often a result of trained, competent and experienced response managers and response teams who can adapt, bring, and build some systems-coordination and order to impacted zones. Often these managers have pre-established and functional relationships between various first responder networks which help to expedite the provision of humanitarian and assessment services in the theater of operations. For countries with a large geography and the potential for rural or remote communities to be cut off from main supply hubs, mustering of potential response teams from local rosters and/or the pre-deployment/pre-positioning of teams should be evaluated.
6. Readiness of National Emergency Operations Centers (NEOC)
Rehearsal and/or “drill” testing of the state of readiness of personnel, equipment, operations protocols and communications ahead of the hurricane is also a good practice, as the core of any effective national response is predicated on optimal functionality of its NEOC. In this regard, redundancy is an important consideration. An impaired NEOC is likely to result in a slow, and/or impaired emergency response effort.
7. Continuity of Government – State Coordination and Decision-making Capabilities
As we have seen before small states can suffer such severe impacts that senior level governance and decision-making from existing state administrations can be slow and/or significantly impaired in the immediate aftermath of major hurricane landfalling events. Understanding and appraising this reality, governments should have clear operational plans with respect to ensuring continuity of communications, and/or delegated decision-making authorities, in the event that the highest decision-makers in the chain of command are offline or are otherwise incapacitated.
As discussed well over a decade ago, at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) sub-regional meeting on Caribbean Experiences and Lessons Learned in Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response to H1N1, a key lesson is that, in pandemic scenarios, “countries must think as though they have to rely solely on their own responses”
With just over a month to go for the official start of the hurricane season, perhaps one of the most stark realities that national and local disaster managers will face, now more than ever, is that they should be far more prepared to rely on their own local and national response systems than on rapid external mutual aid support. Paying due attention to these seven issues should help to strengthen and/or improve their response capacities.