Disaster Responders Grapple with Planning for Extreme Weather in the Time of COVID-19

Social science has amassed a body of research on disaster response best practices that can guide leaders as they prepare for future compound events. Robyn Wilson, professor of risk analysis and decision science at Ohio State University, says that “people will make that right choice that’s being recommended,” such as evacuating or wearing a mask, “if they feel that hazard and threat is personal and relevant to them, if they feel like they have feasible and effective solutions at their disposal, and when they feel like that behavior is accepted by the groups that are important to them.”

The way an extreme event is communicated to a community is crucial, according to Gina Eosco, program manager at NOAA’s Office of Weather and Air Quality. Responding to a disaster often involves very personal decisions, such as what to do with pets or how to navigate a relationship, and therefore “risk communication, at its core, requires empathy.” The government’s early warning weather systems are important for giving communities time to prepare for a specific event, but having data about who is most at-risk can help too. Juli Trtanj from NOAA’s Climate Program Office explained that NOAA is mapping heat waves, overlaying them with data about high-risk populations to predict which communities might need the most assistance.

Economic decline, COVID-19, and summer weather events will create a threefold threat that could hit some especially hard. Neighborhoods of color are most likely to be exposed not only to the effects of climate change, such as heat and flooding, but also to COVID-19 and the widespread economic instability that has followed in its wake, according to Cate Mingoya, director of capacity building at Groundwork USA.

In summer months, some neighborhoods experience as much as a 16 degree difference in temperature when compared with those close to them. “That’s the difference between a $100 utility bill and a $200 utility bill. That’s the difference between having a diabetic episode or a cardiac event and not having one.” While some cities provide cooling centers or splash pads during summer for those who don’t have AC at home or can’t afford to use it, Baldwin pointed out that these public places aren’t adaptable to social distancing. “Our summer toolboxes are looking a little more anemic than they have in the past.”

Mingoya says we can’t fix the economic, climate, and health problems a community faces separately. “Solutions are going to be at the intersection of those points.”

The list of unanswered questions for disaster responders is long. How can we help emergency response workers stay resilient under the long-term stress of a pandemic and a natural disaster? How can communities provide disaster relief and maintain social distancing? What should individuals do to prepare for a compound extreme event?

Planning for summer weather events during COVID-19 will require new thinking, but experts agree that proper risk communication, early warning systems, and a focus on equity are key.