How to Manage Two Disasters at Same Time

On March 5, Tennessee governor Bill Lee announced the state’s first confirmed case of Covid-19. Three weeks later on Easter Sunday, tornadoes touched down outside of Chattanooga, killing four people and flattening 2,000 structures.

Since the start of the pandemic, highly-taxed emergency management agencies have scrambled to make plans for handling a major natural disaster in addition to the virus. A confluence of disasters in Tennessee give insight to how agencies can manage responses to both.

Trevor Riggen, senior vice president of Disaster Cycle Services at the Red Cross, explains that the foundation had started training to respond to disasters during the pandemic well before the twisters in Chattanooga. “We’ve been working since late January to adjust our protocols on the day-to-day events like house fires,” he says.

After the tornadoes touched down, the Red Cross had more than 175 people volunteer to help out locally, but 70% were organized to work virtually. Health service workers who help people get new glasses, medicine and mental health services made contact over the phone rather than in person. Additionally, administrative and management tasks that would have taken place at a local headquarters instead utilized video conferencing.

Tennessee’s March Tornadoes

The storms took 25 lives and insurance claims are expected to top $1 billion.

Normally, the Red Cross builds a shelter in a school gym or community center and asks the displaced to share common areas including bathrooms and sleeping areas. This time the Red Cross contracted with local hotels for shelter to get each family their own room. The Red Cross left it to local emergency service personnel like police and firemen as well as social media to tell impacted families how to find shelter.

By reducing the number of points of contact, the Red Cross had enough protective gear for front-line staff that needed to have close interactions. The volunteers who drop off mobile phones in person to people left without electronics or deliver restaurant meals to families in hotels could count on face masks and other protective clothing.

Although this year has been the deadliest tornado season since 2011, Riggen says the fallout has been manageable. As of April 16, the Red Cross had 1,479 clients in 528 hotel rooms across the country, but they could handle up to 8,000 displaced persons.

But Riggen says that he and his colleagues know that if a disaster is big enough — like a multi-state hurricane — local hotels won’t be the answer. They will be damaged or they will be occupied by people who can afford to pay, unlike most of the people Red Cross assists.

So as the Gulf of Mexico experiences unusually warm water temperatures this spring — one predictor of the severity of upcoming hurricane season — the Red Cross is drilling its staff on what a virus-safe group shelter might look like. It would, of course, include testing and a CDC travel questionnaire as a prerequisite for entering. Anyone with symptoms would be isolated in a separate ward. Everyone else would stay together, but testing would continue regularly and sleeping cots would be spaced 6 feet apart.

Shelter meals will be served individually instead of cafeteria style and disinfectant cleanings will be frequent. The Red Cross says it has 750 kits for shelters that include goggles, masks, gloves and gowns as well as hand sanitizers, thermometers and supplies for a hand washing station.

“This is definitely not business as usual,” says Riggen, “but we are operating.”

About the photo: A man looks over buildings destroyed by storms Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. Tornadoes ripped across Tennessee early Tuesday, shredding buildings and killing multiple people. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)