Hurricane Dorian in 2019. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

When Hurricane Irene bore down on Virginia and the Carolinas in August 2011, local, state and federal governments sprang into action. 

Then-Gov. Bob McDonnell declared a state of emergency. Throughout the Hampton Roads region, localities, university campuses, medical facilities and military bases ordered voluntary or mandatory evacuations. Navy ships headed out to sea. Eighty emergency shelters were set up around the state that ultimately would harbor over 5,000 people

Because Virginia is no stranger to hurricanes, over the years a complex system of emergency responses has developed to get people out of harm’s way. But how exactly that system will work in the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic has proved a challenge for policymakers, who have been set the task of reworking familiar protocols. Neither evacuation, which moves large portions of the population from threatened regions to safer ones, nor traditional sheltering fit neatly into social distancing or safer-at-home guidelines.

This is obviously an unprecedented situation for which no playbook existed,” wrote Lauren Opett, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management in an email.

Nevertheless, officials say that despite the ongoing challenges of COVID-19, Virginia is prepared to handle the hurricane season that began June 1. 

“We have spent an extensive amount of time reviewing and developing guidance as it relates to hurricanes to ensure that we make considerations for COVID-19,” said Curtis Brown, the new VDEM chief appointed by Gov. Ralph Northam Tuesday, in a statement. “This not only includes actions being taken by local and state agencies, but also preparedness efforts that individuals and businesses should consider as well.”

Julian Walker, vice president of communications for the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, said that the same systems that were activated to respond to the pandemic are those that would be mobilized for a natural disaster like a major storm system.

“Given what has happened over the past several months,” he said, “I would say that that infrastructure sort of is almost by default now at a heightened state of awareness.”

Busy hurricane season expected

This year, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center have forecast a 60 percent chance that the Atlantic Coast will see an “above-normal” hurricane season. In their view, that will mean “a likely range of 13 to 19 named storms,” defined as those with winds of 39 mph or higher.

Of those, scientists predict that “6 to 10 could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including 3 to 6 major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 111 mph or higher.”

In an average year, NOAA said that the Atlantic hurricane season includes 12 named storms, six of which become hurricanes, three of them major.

A summary infographic showing hurricane season probability and numbers of named storms predicted from NOAA’s 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Health care personnel are “well aware of the fact that we have entered hurricane season as of June 1 and that we’ve already had three named tropical storms and the anticipation is this could be a particularly active tropical storm season,” said Walker.

Climate change and hurricanes

While variations in weather occur every year, scientists have noted that climate change is affecting both hurricane frequency and intensity. The 4th National Climate Assessment released by the Trump administration in 2018 noted that “high-intensity hurricanes such as Irma are expected to become more common in the future due to climate change. Rapid intensification of storms is also more likely as the climate warms, even though there is also some historical evidence that the same conditions that lead to this intensification also act to weaken hurricane intensity near the U.S. coast.” While tropical storm systems are complex, scientists generally point to three factors related to climate change driving the shift: warmer air temperatures that lead to higher levels of rainfall, warmer ocean temperatures that provide more fuel for developing storms and sea level rise that magnifies storm surges.

‘Locally executed, state managed, federally supported’

Late this May, recognizing the new terrain mapped by the pandemic, the Federal Emergency Management Agency released guidance to state and local governments on how to prepare for the 2020 hurricane season amid pandemic conditions.

“Emergency managers should anticipate the added complexities of conducting response and recovery operations while taking preventative measures to protect the health and safety of disaster survivors and the disaster workforce,” the manual proclaims. 

FEMA’s Region 3, into which Virginia falls along with Maryland, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and West Virginia, is also drafting supplemental guidance “to provide a framework for potential additional steps to address shortfalls and additional needs of people before, during, and after operations when a pandemic and hurricane occur simultaneously,” a spokesperson for the agency said in an email.

Among the steps taken regionally are the training of additional staff via virtual means, said the spokesperson.

Virtual operations, FEMA’s new guidance emphasizes, are likely to be a hallmark of any hurricane response during the pandemic. 

State and local governments “should be prepared to coordinate through virtual communications and ensure the public is aware that the FEMA application process may be virtual and not in-person due to health and safety considerations.”

Because hurricane response has typically been ‘locally executed, state managed and federally supported,” local governments will have the primary responsibility of establishing what are called “non-congregate” shelters in case of a hurricane. The best options? Similar to the field hospital settings preferred by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, hotels and dormitories are considered good choices, with campsites also a possibility. If congregate shelters do have to be used, Red Cross and National Mass Care Strategy guidance urges the number of users to be kept below 50.

FEMA Region 3, said a spokesperson, has already met with Virginia officials to begin shelter planning for the 2020 season. 

On the state level, Opett said the Department of Emergency Management is working to identify “resource needs or potential shortages” for a number of hurricane scenarios. And a statement from Brown emphasized that the agency’s preparations include a focus on equity.

“The COVID-19 environment has only exacerbated these issues,” he wrote. “We are definitely working hard to address these issues to ensure those most vulnerable have access to emergency information and resources.”

With regard to personal protective equipment, VDEM’s Joint Information Center for coronavirus is looking at needs from previous storms to determine what might be required in the event of a hurricane this season.

“We have continued to plan for hurricane season even during the response to COVID-19,” a statement from the Joint Information Center noted. “VDEM established a hurricane contingency work group that has worked concurrent to the coronavirus incident. Financial and logistical considerations, including PPE, are included in that planning. Much of this is inherently dependent on the magnitude of a potential hurricane or tropical storm, however we plan for worst-case scenario.”

Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association spokesperson Walker said the state’s hospitals have ample space to deal with a potential influx of patients.

“With regard to readiness, I would say that hospitals have significant capacity to meet public health needs,” he said. “There are thousands of available beds right now in Virginia hospitals that could accommodate COVID patients or other patients.”

Time may also be on the state’s side: while the Atlantic hurricane season formally lasts from June 1 to November 30, all but one of Virginia’s largest hurricanes in recent years has occurred between August and October. And even the most destructive hurricane season on record, 2017, saw no major storms make landfall in Virginia

This story has been updated with additional information from VDEM’s Joint Information Center and corrected to fix Julian Walker’s title. He is vice president of communications for the VHHA, not president.