This year, the next disaster keeps arriving before the last disaster is over.
Historic rainfall in January and February swelled the Pearl River and flooded large swaths of Jackson and central Mississippi, inundating hundreds of homes and displacing thousands of residents. Tornadoes ripped across the state throughout the month of April, causing 15 deaths and widespread damage. And, of course, as of May 1, COVID-19 has sickened 7,212 and killed 281 Mississippians since the first case was confirmed in March.
We may only be at the beginning. The Atlantic hurricane season that runs from June 1 to November 1 is expected to be more severe than average. A projection from meteorologists at Penn State estimate 20 named storms developing this season, far above the 12 storms in a typical year. If the prediction comes to pass, it would be the second-worst hurricane season on record.
On Monday, Governor Tate Reeves initiated a partial reopening of the state economy. His “safer at home” order still restricts some business operations, but it allows for many previously “non-essential” businesses to resume. (Cities retain the ability to enforce stricter guidelines. Jackson, for instance, has extended its shelter-in-place order through the middle of the month.) This morning, the state health department announced 397 new cases — by far the most of any day since they began counting. Time will tell whether that is a statistical blip or a symptom of relaxed social distancing protocols.
The economic toll of quarantine is dire and must be addressed, but the public health risk of reopening the economy too soon will be compounded grievously by a hurricane or other natural disaster.
We can look to the effects of the tornadoes that hit the Pine Belt on Easter for evidence. Here is the scene in Collins, as reported by Mother Jones:
“Over the past few weeks, more than 35 families in the Collins area, most of whom lost everything in the tornado, have taken up residence at the local Best Western. “They’re in shock, they don’t know where to go or what do to next,” says Rachel Pickering, who owns the hotel. “The trailers, they just blew away—there’s nothing left of those but the slab.” Guests filter into the dining room in the morning for coffee and pastries—all other breakfast foods have been suspended in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus—and then head out to sort through the wreckage, searching for what’s left of their former lives, or to pick up food or clothing at nearby churches. They return at dusk, exhausted. Pickering says the Red Cross has been helping foot some of the bills for rooms.”
Even the prospect of a hurricane or tropical storm tracking for the Gulf Coast will create significant problems. People will crowd into grocery and hardware stores to buy supplies, clearing already-limited shelves. If landfall appears possible, temporary shelters will have to be set up, and water and food distribution sites will have to be prepared. Some accommodations can be made to increase social distancing, but these places are communal by their nature.
Authorities will have to weigh the declaration of an evacuation order that would force hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes. Evacuees would fill inland hotels and houses of family and friends, many of which would include older people and people with underlying medical conditions. Vulnerable populations, especially those in retirement homes, would have to be transported with extra care. Patients in south Mississippi hospitals would have to be moved north to hospitals where bed space and supplies are already stretched thin.
It’s possible, perhaps probable, that all of this will occur at some point in the coming months. Even if a storm peters out before making landfall, it could unleash new viral outbreaks. A worst-case scenario — a much larger version of what the tornado victims in the Pine Belt are experiencing right now — would be catastrophic.
After the storm hits, it would be difficult to mobilize a full-scale relief and recovery effort. In the wake of the tornadoes, we have seen people rally to help their neighbors even at the risk to themselves. That selfless humanitarian impulse would kick in after a hurricane as well, but the thousands of relief workers — mostly volunteers — who typically descend on a disaster area from around the country would be hard-pressed to travel. Residents might be holed up in hotels or shelters for months waiting to return home. Emergency financial assistance, already swamped by unprecedented numbers of claims, might be delayed by jammed phone lines and overloaded websites.
The state agencies that take the lead on disaster relief, the Department of Health and Emergency Management Agency, have been on the front lines combating the coronavirus. State leaders must make sure that disaster response plans have been fully updated to account for coronavirus, and that they have been clearly communicated with officials and stakeholders on the ground. They must also make sure that there are enough tests and protective equipment in place. But preparation can only go so far.
By far the most important thing they can do is to maintain strict shelter-in-place orders until the state has seen a sustained decrease in COVID-19 cases and has the testing capacity to ensure comprehensive tracking. Otherwise, we are throwing ourselves at the mercy of Mother Nature, and based on the blows she has already dealt in 2020, that should give us even more cause for worry.