In Brief

The Challenge of Hurricane Response Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

In 2020, U.S. struggles to manage a record-breaking hurricane season were exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. Intensifying storms reveal faults in infrastructure and disaster response that experts say must be addressed.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season that began early with Tropical Storm Arthur in mid-May was unmatched in recent years. With thirty named storms—including two Category 4 hurricanes that slammed into Central America just two weeks apart—scientists ran out of names and resorted to Greek letters. Experts say the onslaught of storms, which caused hundreds of deaths and tens of billions of dollars in damages, foreshadows more intense hurricane seasons to come. Meanwhile, the arrival of COVID-19 confronted the United States with a new challenge: how to respond to deadly storms in the midst of a pandemic.

What was different about this hurricane season?

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This year’s Atlantic hurricane season resembled that of 2005, until now the most powerful season in recent times, in a few ways. Both years saw scientists exhaust their list of storm names, which follows the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet, and turn to Greek letters. (The threshold for a named storm is sustained winds of thirty-nine miles per hour. Once winds surpass seventy-three miles per hour, it is categorized as a hurricane.) Both had record-breaking numbers of named storms, but 2020 holds the new record, at thirty; thirteen of those became hurricanes. 

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What’s more, the strength of these storms is increasing. In early November, Hurricane Eta made landfall as a Category 4 storm in northern Nicaragua before causing devastation across Central America, including in Guatemala and Honduras. Two weeks later, Hurricane Iota barreled through the same region also as a Category 4. Such large late-season storms are rare, but the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that more of these could develop beyond November 30, the official end date of the hurricane season.

How has the pandemic affected the response in the United States?

The coronavirus pandemic makes responding to this unusual hurricane season even more challenging. Not only are U.S. states’ resources already stretched thin, but shelters have been faced with housing evacuees in numbers that exceed social distancing guidelines. Moreover, the threat of infection is preventing disaster relief organizations from sending their usual numbers of volunteers. “There is a level of complexity and stress, and obviously financial strain,” says CFR’s Alice Hill. 

Local governments have struggled to manage both crises at once. Miami, for instance, drew criticism for designating emergency hospitals for COVID-19 patients in hurricane evacuation zones. Hurricane Eta brought heavy rains to Miami in November, damaging one of Florida’s busiest COVID-19 testing sites.

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When Hurricane Laura hit southeastern Texas in August, the state’s evacuation shelters quickly filled up and officials encouraged evacuees to independently seek safety in hotels and motels. Louisiana closed COVID-19 testing centers in preparation for Laura, making it difficult to track cases as the state reopened schools. 

Hill emphasizes that the country still does not have the emergency management it needs in place, though some states have improvised solutions this storm season. This will be a defining issue moving forward, since it will become increasingly common for places in the United States to be hit by multiple disasters simultaneously.

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What are the other barriers to preparing for stronger storms?

Experts say that rising global temperatures are leading to warmer ocean waters and intensifying storms, with larger and more damaging storm surges. CFR’s Hill warns that U.S. infrastructure is not prepared for this future, pointing to Hurricane Sandy, which hit the New York City area in 2012. Sandy’s storm surge overcame Manhattan’s twelve-foot-tall barriers and drove seawater into city subways and other underground systems.

People, including a man cradling two babies, wearing orange life vests.  Water appears behind them.
Firefighters rescue residents from banana fields in the Yoro region of Honduras following Hurricane Eta in November 2020. Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

But there is another challenge for coastal communities: not wanting to move. Pacifica, California, sits precariously on an eroding cliff, and town officials have repeatedly pressed defiant residents to move inland. The West Coast faces sea-level rise at a rate higher than the global average, yet Pacifica residents are demanding stronger seawalls to protect their homes rather than giving in to calls to relocate. 

Ultimately, the United States’ vast coastal areas will likely be seen as too valuable to abandon. Coastal counties and their many major cities account for over 40 percent of the country’s jobs and almost half of its gross domestic product (GDP), and many investor and retirement assets lie on the coasts. 

Instead, Hill says, building adaptive infrastructure that will protect against flooding and storm surges in the years to come will be crucial to combating coastal threats. Building codes and zoning ordinances are not built to withstand intensifying storms, so they must be updated to guide present and future construction. 

Cities are often taking the lead here: In New York’s Hurricane Sandy recovery plan, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey provided guidelines to engineers to account for rising sea levels and other climate factors when developing infrastructure. Other coastal cities—including New Orleans and Norfolk, Virginia—are putting billions of dollars into new seawalls and other infrastructure in the hope of salvaging their built environments. President-Elect Joe Biden has called for additional federal investments in such projects, though it remains to be seen how big a role Washington will play in the coming years.

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