Prioritize Preparedness: Hurricane Season Preparation During a Pandemic

By Elizabeth B. Savage

This week is Hurricane Preparedness Week (May 3-9), and although COVID-19 is dominating our news channels and conversations, we should not let it overshadow the upcoming hurricane season, which begins June 1, 2020. COVID-19 has certainly taken a toll on the State of North Carolina, with the most recent NCDHHS laboratory confirmed case count at 12,256. On May 5, Gov. Cooper announced that North Carolina will start Phase I of a reopen plan on Friday, May 8. This announcement comes almost two weeks after the governor first announced the three-phase plan. The United States has not faced an infectious disease disaster like COVID-19 since the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic; while our nation and state continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic response, North Carolina must also prepare for hurricane season.

Hurricanes and severe tropical storms have historically wreaked havoc along the North Carolina coast. These natural disasters are sudden, catastrophic, and have a disparate impact on vulnerable populations, and this season’s hurricane activity is forecasted to be above normal. The Colorado State University Tropical Meteorology Project recently published a forecast of the 2020 Atlantic seasonal hurricane activity that predicted sixteen named storms, eight hurricanes, and four major hurricanes.

Many North Carolinians are still recovering from previous hurricane season activity, long after the storms have subsided. Notably, Hurricane Florence, which made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina on September 14, 2018, devastated eastern North Carolina with heavy rainfall and severe flooding. This hurricane produced record-breaking rainfall with over thirty inches of rain measured in a few North Carolina locations. The state of North Carolina reported preliminary damage estimates of $16.7 billion and nearly 140,000 North Carolinians registered for disaster assistance after the storm. Hurricane Florence was labeled as a Category 1 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, and showed us that even a low category storm can make a huge impact. It is important to take seriously hurricane season preparation efforts and planned response strategies in order to mitigate damage and have a stronger recovery process.

Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered the way our communities will be able to respond to hurricanes. For example, congregate shelter plans that have been historically relied upon to provide immediate shelter for disaster survivors may need to modify policies and procedures, given the current pandemic response and governing social distancing orders.  Accordingly, we should continue to look to public health officials for up-to-date COVID-19 response guidance as we move forward into hurricane season, so we can incorporate recommendations into hurricane emergency preparedness plans.

This 2020 hurricane season, North Carolina is fully implementing Know Your Zone, a cooperative effort of North Carolina Emergency Management and emergency partners in coastal counties, which predetermines zones based on vulnerability to storm surge and other hazards. These zones will be used in the event of an evacuation order. For more information on hurricanes and overall emergency preparedness, visit the ReadyNC website and review the 2020 North Carolina Hurricane Guide.

Free disaster related legal assistance is also available through the Disaster Relief Project of Legal Aid of North Carolina, Inc. The Project is available to assist individuals, families, and communities who are experiencing legal issues from a current disaster, and who are still in the recovery process from previous disasters. Project attorneys provide legal services on issues including consumer protection matters (such as contractor fraud or scams), property ownership, insurance claims, replacement of wills and other important legal documents, landlord/tenant problems, and appeals of FEMA decisions. The Disaster Relief Project also works with a team of talented social workers who are available to assist with connecting individuals to necessary recovery resources and trauma informed psychotherapy services. Call Legal Aid’s Helpline at 1 (866) 219-LANC (5262) or apply online to find out if you are eligible to receive the Project’s free legal assistance.

In light of Hurricane Preparedness Week, take some time to make an emergency preparedness plan, determine your evacuation zone, put together emergency kits, review insurance policies, make copies of important documents and, ultimately, ensure that you and your loved ones are ready for this hurricane season. Consider current public health guidance and recommendations on COVID-19 when making planning decisions. Preparedness is essential in overcoming disastrous emergency events, and as North Carolina continues to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, let us also take the necessary steps to avoid and mitigate expected loss from what is forecasted to be a highly active 2020 hurricane season.