Disaster Preparedness Key Amid Pandemic

May 27, 2020

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Coronavirus complicates normal evacuation procedures during environmental disasters like a hurricane or wildfire. Above, a temporary mobile medical facility set up at the Oregon State Fairgrounds on March 19, 2020. Photo: U.S. Army National Guard/SFC Zachary Holden, Oregon Military Department Public Affairs Office, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Issue Backgrounder: Disaster Preparedness Key Amid Pandemic

By Joseph A. Davis

In normal times, the environmental beat keeps journalists busy with all kinds of disasters waiting to happen. But now COVID-19 will make many of them worse. 

And that requires special consideration from communities trying to plan for them and the journalists preparing to cover them. 

Already, the coronavirus pandemic has been a virtual outbreak of environmental stories or stories with many environmental connections, some of which SEJournal recently reported (see “Coronavirus Pandemic Spawns Many Stories on Environment Beat”).

Like many other environmental stories, COVID-19 is about unheeded warnings. Here, then, are some of the new warnings the current disaster points to.


Mass evacuations — ‘Gimme Shelter’

A highly contagious pandemic pathogen like the coronavirus seriously complicates the normal ways we shelter evacuees in an environmental disaster like a hurricane or wildfire. Just crowding a few hundred people into a high school gym may make things worse, rather than better.


Close quarters with no effective infection control

can be dangerous. But with planning,

preparation and enough resources,

they are not an insurmountable challenge.


Close quarters with no effective infection control can be dangerous. But with planning, preparation and enough resources, they are not an insurmountable challenge. Is your community ready? Are journalists?

Some disaster planning officials are already taking these things into account: the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Red Cross among them. 

But much of the responsibility still falls to local communities and individual families.

For example, you or your family may do well to have a “go kit” ready for emergencies. In addition to the usual flashlights, bottled water and other necessities, you probably should add face masks, latex gloves, medications, hand sanitizer, soap, thermometer, etc. If you can get your hands on disinfectant wipes or spray, those would be wise to lay in.

The high school gym or church basement might still be a viable emergency alternative. But more separation and social distancing may be required. This changes capacity calculations — and infrastructure needs and operating procedures. Your local authorities should already be thinking about these things.

During the pandemic, other alternatives have emerged. Convention centers have been turned into surge hospitals. Empty hotels have offered both shelter and separation. Such solutions are still ad hoc, and depend on the location and the problem. But planning and anticipation by public agencies always helps.


Hurricanes and tornadoes — bigger, sooner, badder

The Atlantic hurricane season officially starts June 1. Remember that we told you about it, and don’t say “nobody could have seen it coming” (may require subscription). 

SEJournal has published articles about hurricanes before, and they are worth reviewing (for example, see “Hurricane Season Brings Surprises, and Surprising Depth” and our hurricane toolkit page).

Above, a nursing home resident being evacuated in Orange, Texas, on Aug. 30, 2017, during Hurricane Harvey. Photo: Louisiana National Guard, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

But there are a few important things to notice about past hurricane disasters  — things that offer lessons about preparing for the next one.

Hurricanes come with some warning, but ones that are still fairly short. Let the agencies worry about over-warning or under-warning. Keep an eye (and your audience’s eye) out for the warnings and take them seriously. But we are warning you — prepare ahead.

The worst hurricanes are bigger than expected, sooner than expected and badder than expected. 

They are worse for the most vulnerable — the poor, the trailer-inhabitants, the residents of nursing homes. Often they are region-wide, meaning that the normal disaster-response institutions can not cope. 

At worst, they knock out most of the infrastructure that normal life depends on: electric power, drinking water, sewage treatment, pipelines and shipping, roads, police and fire departments, clinics and hospitals, and city or county government. All at once.

These things depend on one another. If the roads are flooded or blocked by fallen trees and power wires, the fire department can not get through to rescue people. People suddenly find themselves in a war zone or “failed state.”     

Amid the pandemic, we are encouraged to think more about whether our emergency rooms and hospitals are accessible, whether they have reliable, tested, adequate emergency power, whether their water and sewage needs are met, whether they are floodproof (much less windproof) and whether their overall disaster planning is good enough.

Less likely to be well-enough prepared are facilities like nursing homes, where power outages and lack of air conditioning may create unhealthy conditions and knock out medical equipment — and where infection control may be poor to start with.

Conditions like these can make a community more vulnerable, not just to COVID-19, but to a variety of disease agents and health threats.     


Wildfires — a killing wind

Yes, wildfires can kill you outright. But the worst wildfires can kill communities. 

The 2018 Camp Fire that all but wiped out Paradise, Calif., exemplifies a kind of disaster that may become far more common as climate change progresses, in California and elsewhere. 

Increasing heat and drought, along with other changing weather conditions like wind, and shifts in forest ecology, seem poised to turn more wildfires into major disasters.

Some of these fires require big evacuations, and some of those take place in quite a hurry, which may mean planning is haphazard. The problems with evacuation shelters mentioned above may be worse, even if temporary.

But the smoke from wildfires often poses a special threat not only to healthy air-breathers, but also to people with compromised respiratory systems. Government and private agencies promoting respiratory health have offered some advice for this. So does EPA


If you are suffering from COVID-19 or 

have pneumonia for some other reason, 

smoke pollution is not your friend and 

you need to be somewhere with cleaner air.


Thing is: If you are suffering from COVID-19 or have pneumonia for some other reason, smoke pollution is not your friend and you need to be somewhere with cleaner air. 

If you have asthma, emphysema, black lung, COPD or another chronic lung ailment, you are at special risk, whether or not you have the virus. 

But in this coming wildfire season, there will be stories about how the smoke affects people with COVID-19.

Other than moving to clean air, there may be other protective measures both sick and healthy people can take. Staying indoors may help. Smoke pollution involves both gas and particulates, and it may be harmful before you can even see it. 

Ordinary dust masks don’t help much with the fine particulates in wildfire smoke. You will do better with an N95 mask if you can find one or are clever enough to get some ahead of time.

In this time of COVID-19, wildfires present special threats to the heroes who fight them. Firefighters often live in crowded work camps close to other crew members. The smoke that firefighters inevitably breathe in makes them more vulnerable to respiratory infections like COVID-19, while the exertion of firefighting makes it difficult to wear protective masks. 

Firefighting agencies are working hard before this season gets underway to develop new practices and procedures to minimize coronavirus risk to firefighters.

And we have to say it: Many wildfire disasters could be prevented by a zoning or planning board that kept human buildings separate from wildlands, by clearing fuel from around buildings, by good warning systems and by good evacuation planning.


Toxic inhalation and other hazards

On the environmental beat, there can be a Pandora’s box of potential health-harming disasters. 

The good news is that most of them don’t happen very often. The bad news is that some of them have been hard for all but we Cassandras to foresee.

One category is called “toxic inhalation hazards.” Take special note of those during this time of coronavirus. 

Modern industrial society handles a number of chemical substances that are especially toxic if you breathe them in. They can do massive, possibly fatal, damage to lungs, whether those lungs are healthy or (worse yet) diseased.

Chlorine gas is one of the worst. It was used as a chemical weapon in World War I, and is still used that way in Syria

Chlorine is also used, still, in many communities to disinfect drinking water and sewage plant effluent. It has other industrial uses. That means 90-ton tanker cars full of chlorine may be rolling past your community — or parked on a nearby siding. 

An accidental release from, say, a ruptured tank car in a densely populated area could be catastrophic.  

And that’s just one toxic inhalation hazard. Ammonia gas is commonly used in large refrigeration plants. Labeled as anhydrous ammonia, it is a bulk agricultural fertilizer. Hydrofluoric acid is commonly used in petroleum refining. A styrene release in India recently killed a dozen people. There are lots more.

After the 9/11 attack, there was great government and political interest for a time in the possibility of a terrorist attack via chemical, biological or nuclear agents. Anthrax was one that presented a real threat.


The question more apparent now is 

whether local hospitals and emergency 

rooms are prepared for a mass casualty 

event of such awfulness and on such a scale.


The question more apparent now is whether local hospitals and emergency rooms are prepared for a mass casualty event of such awfulness and on such a scale. 

We now know even more acutely, for instance, that ventilators, the devices which breathe for people with badly damaged lungs, are in limited supply in most places — which is why they were included in the Strategic National Stockpile

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, that was still not enough. A bad anthrax attack, or a chlorine disaster, could blow through local, regional and national reserves of ventilators in short order.

The answer? Use your imagination. Plan ahead. Prepare. Assume the worst. 


Environmental infrastructure vulnerable in a disaster

Most U.S. residents’ daily life is as good (or bad?) as it is because of extensive environmental infrastructure. 

That could include drinking water plants, sewage treatment plants, garbage handling and disposal, dams, irrigation districts, electrical and gas distribution utilities and networks, roads, parks and a lot of other things.

Your drinking water plant, for example, could be knocked out by a flood or hurricane. What would happen then? Could it be brought back online? Could a backup be found? Would it be just bottled water? What are the contingencies and how good are the plans and preparations? 

These things do happen. Just ask the people of Flint, Mich., or Charleston, W.Va. 

Who is in charge of disaster planning, preparedness and response at the agencies that provide your local environmental infrastructure?  


Emergency agencies

A good way to begin exploring these topics as a journalist is to take inventory of — and establish contacts at — some of the agencies that would matter to your community in a public health or environmental emergency. 

What, for instance, is going to happen at nursing homes, daycare centers, schools and prisons? 

Some suggestions of sources to track:

  • First responders. That usually means police, fire department and ambulance services. In many communities, these are integrated. Find people who can talk to the media.
  • Water and sewer utilities. Sometimes these are the same agency. They can be huge or tiny, which means varying reporting challenges.
  • LEPCs and SERCs. Federal hazmat laws like the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, or EPCRA, hoping to prevent another Bhopal disaster, have set up a system of Local Emergency Planning Committees, or LEPCs, and State Emergency Response Commissions, or SERCs, to prepare for and prevent them. These may overlap with first responders. Some are secretive, although the law requires them to be transparent.
  • Local government. If there’s debris from a natural disaster, is your county’s landfill closed during the COVID-19 lockdown? It would be good to know.
  • Hospitals and emergency rooms. Where are the closest trauma centers and emergency rooms? Who can you call to find out what’s going on? Are they prepared, staffed, equipped? Will they share their plans?

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheetReporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 21. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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