Editor's Note: Sarah Lipuma is a Master of Environmental Management graduate student at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. She researches climate change risk mitigation strategies for coastal communities. She was raised in Lacey and is a graduate of the Ocean County high school Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science (MATES) in Manahawkin.

OCEAN COUNTY, NJ - With an overactive hurricane season predicted by multiple sources, the COVID-19 pandemic may dramatically alter the usual approaches of protecting Ocean County residents from dangerous weather. Hurricane season officially began on June 1 and ends on November 30, but two tropical storms already impacted the American coast before the official start date.

Tropical Storm Cristobal was the earliest third storm on record. The devastating impacts of hurricanes and flooding are expected to worsen each year in New Jersey. Scientists attribute this to climate change, rising seas, and warming waters.

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Federal, state, and local emergency managers in New Jersey are working on the possibility of responding to a major hurricane and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic simultaneously. According to the CDC, a resurgence of COVID-19 cases could occur later this year. It might coincide with a late season storm the likes of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated Jersey Shore residents.

Ocean County residents recall Sandy’s impact.  Many were forced from their homes. Unfortunately, some have still not found the resources to rebuild.

Social distancing may be extremely difficult to manage in busy emergency shelters and during mandatory evacuations. Distribution of food and emergency supplies will need to be run in ways that adhere to new public health guidelines.

Groups especially vulnerable during hurricanes including medically fragile populations and the elderly, will need increased attention because they are also particularly susceptible to the dire effects of the novel coronavirus. People who feel the calling to volunteer at emergency shelters like those set up by the American Red Cross are often older retirees at higher risk of infection themselves. This could become problematic because volunteers will have greater contact with countless people seeking shelter before and after a hurricane.

Early modeling research suggests that in the aftermath of a hurricane coinciding with the pandemic, hospitals and nursing homes will be impacted the most by loss of workforce due to evacuation, and power, water, and waste outages.

To prepare for these dual threats, CONVERGE, a project of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder has started an initiative: the COVID-19 Hurricane Preparedness Working Group. This group gathered practitioners and researchers from public health and emergency management to discuss ways to adapt to a compound crisis in a series of moderated workshops.

Ideas and considerations for local and state emergency managers to revamp hurricane response plans for public health concerns included:

  • Creating registries for vulnerable groups to pre-register for evacuation and sheltering assistance with their special needs in mind
  • Accommodating the need for more distance between sheltered people, like by utilizing individual hotel rooms for families and large vacant spaces like school auditoriums and performance spaces
  • Training shelter workers on rapid health assessments and proper disinfecting procedures
  • Protecting vulnerable shelter workers and volunteers from becoming infected themselves by providing personal protective equipment and using plastic barriers at registration and supply distribution stations
  • Creating an online registration for people in need of emergency shelter so that shelter workers have less contact with individuals
  • Informing all residents to include face coverings, hand sanitizer, and disinfectants in their emergency kit if they need to shelter in place, evacuate, or stay in a shelter
  • Changing public messaging to reflect new recommendations and increase public confidence in emergency guidance

A complete review of these considerations is included in the Compound Hurricane-Pandemic Threat workshop summaries.

NOLA Ready, the emergency preparedness department in New Orleans, Louisiana has already augmented their hurricane guidance to give residents recommendations to reduce the risk of infection while preparing for and recovering from a storm.

It is better to be prepared than to be caught off guard. The New Jersey Office of Emergency Management and local emergency management departments around the state need to update their hurricane preparedness plans, communication, and training to anticipate a compound hurricane and public health emergency.