Summer 2020 is officially underway. But for those people living along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, summer also marks the official start of hurricane season, which this year is predicted to be far more active than in 2019. If this season is as intense as forecasted and evacuations become necessary, additional preparatory actions will be required due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Complying with social distancing and sanitation protocols during an evacuation will likely be complicated and potentially impossible to manage, leaving residents with a difficult choice: shelter in place or risk possible COVID-19 exposure by evacuating.
Even before the pandemic, those living in evacuation zones often chose not to obey local officials’ orders due to fear as well as the upheaval and costs associated with a potential week-long removal, while some residents were simply physically unable to leave due to a lack of transportation. Additionally, many residents who choose not to evacuate are those living in communities that are already facing chronic socio-economic problems. Municipalities generally bus their lower-income residents to an emergency shelter, but space is typically very limited even before social distancing guidelines are implemented. Under a pandemic evacuation situation, the risk to these already vulnerable individuals will only be compounded and may make them even more unlikely to opt to move out of a hurricane’s path.
It will be challenging for local governments to come up with plans to evacuate those most in danger, especially when resources are at their most strained. Building resources within these underserved communities could help with individual decision-making in crisis situations like hurricane evacuations -- or even pandemics -- by allowing residents to develop solutions that are designed to best support them. Improving community capacity may also be a powerful way to encourage their inherent resilience, especially in the face of increasing natural and other types of disasters.
Stanford researchers recently convened to discuss how allocating federal funding that helps communities to prepare for and build greater resiliency to withstand future catastrophic events post-pandemic would be a forward-looking investment. As communities face multiple crises at once – particularly those already experiencing disproportionate social impacts - it will be important for all levels of government to play a role in helping to empower diverse voices and best deploy resources. The panelists also stressed that any proposed interventions should meet people where they are and reflect their cultural values in addition to being practical and resource appropriate. Typically, hurricanes and other natural disasters serve as catalysts that expose and exacerbate existing societal issues. But investing in local communities now by building upon their existing social capital will allow them to better weather any type of storm. The entire conversation is available for viewing here.