Triple Bottom Line: Natural disasters during a pandemic mean trouble

columnist graphic for Montana Denton fall 2020

Leave it to 2020 to find a way to make natural disasters simply more disastrous. Evidence shows that as our climate continues to heat up, hurricanes are getting stronger and more destructive. Tropical storm systems — from Atlantic hurricanes to Pacific typhoons and Indian cyclones — are some of the most damaging natural disasters on Earth, battering coastlines and uprooting human life. 

Starting with a small atmospheric disturbance over tropical ocean water, moisture, heat and wind are all key ingredients that form the first step to a hurricane, called a tropical depression. As the system increases in intensity, it becomes a tropical storm, and once winds reach speeds of over 74 miles per hour, it becomes a hurricane. When a hurricane makes landfall, it can cause heavy rain, high winds, flooding and storm surges, bringing massive damage and often casualties with it. 

Running from June 1 to Nov. 30, with the strongest storms typically peaking in early September, the Atlantic hurricane season in 2020 has been abnormally active, with 25 named systems forming, including 10 tropical storms and five hurricanes hitting U.S. landmasses. 

Named to streamline and simplify communication, the World Meteorological Organization cycles six lists of alphabetized female and male names used to identify storm systems. If there are more than 21 storms in a system, like 2020, then the Greek alphabet is used to name the additional storms. NOAA estimates that damage incurred from hurricanes in the past forty years totals over $500 billion. 

While there is “no discernible trend in the global number of tropical cyclones” correlating with greater release of carbon dioxide emissions and increased global warming, it’s arguable that humans do have some effect on global weather patterns. The more fossil fuels that we release will cause increased temperatures across the globe and warming ocean water, priming the storm systems to develop more quickly. Scientists have noted that with more available potential energy, hurricanes aren’t necessarily occurring more frequently, but anthropogenic warming may contribute to more rapid intensification of storms. 

Not only are these natural disasters destructive and often deadly, but in the current pandemic landscape, they have the potential to be the catalyst for super-spreading events. As inhabitants of coastal cities flee for their lives, local lawmakers are forced to weigh the costs of ensuring physical safety at the risk of causing new outbreaks. 

The virus also throws a wrench in the straightforward goal of mitigating loss of life due to hurricane damages. Community-based testing centers will be forced to cease their regular routines, so the virus will be harder to track. Due to flooding and storm damages, each hurricane that strikes land forces many to uproot and live in temporary close quarters, sometimes without reliable sources of water and sanitation. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has actually published coronavirus guidelines specifically for natural disasters and severe weather, offering advice to minimize the risk of infection while staying in temporary shelter. While it mostly covers basic guidelines like social distancing, mask-wearing and avoiding touching high-contact surfaces, it also advises people to organize a kit of personal hygiene items and disinfectants to take with them in the event of evacuation. 

While the information is helpful, it isn’t necessarily new. With no other place to go, shelter evacuees are stuck, forced to compromise on social distancing and sanitation measures in order to keep a roof over their heads. Additionally, shelters themselves must abide by social distancing measures, reducing capacity to make sure that there is enough space between inhabitants. 

There is also a strong likelihood that residents who are evacuating to shelters instead of staying with family or booking hotels further inland are more likely to be seriously affected by the virus, as they might have less access to things like health care and adequate insurance. There is no real solution to the dilemma –– emergency shelter managers must either risk spreading coronavirus to at-risk individuals by maxing out capacity or follow CDC protocols by turning people away and leaving them to their own devices to find shelter and safety.

This hurricane season, the CDC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency urged city officials to prioritize designating alternative emergency shelters like hotels, empty dormitories, convention centers and smaller shelters in order to provide adequate social distancing and prevent potential outbreaks. 

Some cities have taken preemptive measures by establishing pre-emergency contracts with local hotels and motels, effectively planning to quarantine hurricane evacuees from each other and attempting to manage the otherwise inevitable spread of the virus. However, this method isn’t sustainable long-term or is inadequate if too many people are displaced. Since hotels are public property, commandeering them for weeks on end with quarantined evacuees also presents financial concerns. Evacuations on the largest scale will inevitably hinder efforts in southern coastal states to mitigate the pandemic. 

While the coronavirus has undeniably complicated an already unprecedented season of natural disasters along U.S. coastal cities, the government, the CDC and FEMA have unquestionably fallen short. Even when there is an end to the pandemic in sight, global warming has ensured that stronger storms will be on the horizon. Yet the adequacy and availability of evacuation shelters leave much to be desired. If nothing else, this hurricane season should be a lesson –– the pandemic adds an undesirable plot twist to an already chaotic situation, post-natural disaster. From wildfires and earthquakes to floods and monsoons, emergency response plans should be updated to reflect the pandemic and keep everyone safe from both disaster and disease.

Montana Denton is a junior writing about environmental issues, sustainability and society. Her column, “Triple Bottom Line,” runs every other Thursday.