Hurricane Season Is About to Collide With COVID

Sheltering in place during a storm may be more dangerous than evacuating

By Sara Novak

July 13, 2020


Hurricane Dorian | Photo courtesy of NOAA

When my husband and I first moved to Charleston eight years ago, we lived on Sullivan’s Island, a tiny barrier island just outside of the city. Our house was a wooden shack on stilts one row of homes back from the beach. Neighbors lovingly referred to it as “the treehouse” because it was cocooned in giant oaks that draped over its rusted screened-in porches. Our landlord had largely given up on the house, refusing to fix anything and leaving us with a broken refrigerator and no dryer. Our clothes, which were hung out on a tilting clothes-line, were always damp and smelled of mold. Still, we pinched ourselves every day, in awe that we finally got to live our vacation. 

I’m still grateful that I get to call the beach home, but living along the coast of South Carolina does come with one annually formidable drawback. In the relatively short time that we’ve lived in the South Carolina Lowcountry, we’ve had to evacuate three times as enormous storms barreled toward our coast. Each time, we’ve had to round up the dogs; stock up on food, gas, and cash; then hit the road in a hurry for an extended unplanned trip. Most recently, for hurricanes Matthew and Dorian, we rushed out of town with babies in tow.  

Of course, dodging hurricanes is the price you pay for living along the beautiful coast of the Palmetto State—especially now that hurricanes are a greater threat than before as sea levels are rising and warmer ocean temperatures make storms stronger.  But this year is different. The pandemic has rendered our homes the safest place to avoid contracting COVID-19. Yet a violent storm would make the refuge of home no longer safe. Evacuating to escape a storm, however, brings its own dangers: A hurricane could lob us right back into the traffic jams, crowded grocery stores, truck stops, and hotels that put us at risk of the virus.

Recent events and the latest weather predictions are heightening this damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t tension. Cases of COVID-19 are currently spiking in South Carolina and other southern states due to a poorly managed and badly timed reopening. To make matters worse, this year is set to be a doozy of a hurricane season, according to experts.  

“We’re seeing a more active than normal hurricane season,” says Susan Cutter, professor of geography and director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. “We’ve already seen two named storms make landfall prior to the start of the season.”

Cutter is concerned that, even in the midst of a busy storm year, fewer people will evacuate because of concerns over the coronavirus. And those that do evacuate could have trouble finding a place to go because shelters may not be able to hold as many people due to social distancing guidelines. Evacuees who normally drive inland to stay with family may be hesitant to put parents and grandparents at risk of the virus. 

While evacuation will likely be more difficult than in years past, Cutter warns that, on balance, the imminent threat of a hurricane bearing down is more dangerous than the prospective threat of contracting the virus. “Using the pandemic as an excuse not to evacuate is a dangerous error,” Cutter says.

What are the best ways of balancing these twin threats? Cutter has a couple of recommendations. Coastal residents should be ready to leave earlier than they normally would in a storm so they have time to find a place to go, and they should have their protective gear ready long before stores sell out. In the event of a weather emergency, you should have the usual evacuation essentials, including three to five days’ worth of medicine; three to five days' of nonperishable food and water; cash; pet food; and a battery-powered flashlight and radio. This year, you’ll also need some new pandemic-related essentials like masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and your own bedding.  

Of course, all of these items come with a price tag, and for many families, this year’s hurricane season is particularly bad timing. The unemployment rate in South Carolina jumped from 2.4 percent in December to 12.5 percent in May as a result of the pandemic, though that number has dropped since the state began reopening. The pandemic-related recession has made even simple preparations like purchasing food and water ahead of time impossible for those who are struggling financially. Many of the most at-risk families end up being the most affected, because buying food, water, and gas when you haven’t seen a paycheck in months isn’t feasible. 

Hurricane Katrina is a cautionary example of what can happen when coastal residents need to escape the path of a storm but can’t afford to. “Katrina happened at the end of the month, and many people that should have left didn’t have enough cash to fill up their gas tanks,” Cutter says.

After the storm has died down and the winds and rains have calmed, the task of returning to home and reconstructing whatever has been damaged will represent another, quieter threat. “What do you do after the storm has passed, when resting power lines and debris need to be cleared and essential functions need to be restored?” Cutter says.  

Utility workers and FEMA staff coming in from across the country could be coronavirus carriers. The arrival of out-of-state workers combined with a population made vulnerable by the storm could make for a petri dish of disease. While Cutter says that South Carolina Emergency Management is well versed at managing disasters, she’s less confident in the federal response, which, she says, under this administration has proven ineffective at handling disasters like Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the pandemic. 

The hope is that this year Charleston and other coastal cities along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico will be spared so that we can move past one disaster before encountering another. But that’s less likely as global climate change makes the threat of hurricane destruction more pressing. “As these storms pass over the ocean, the increased heat adds energy and strengthens the hurricane and sea level is higher so the storm surge reaches further inland,” says Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists who has been studying the impact of warming seas on hurricanes.  

Dahl warns that freak rain events have also become more common. One example is Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that sat over the Bahamas for days while dropping more than 36 inches of rain. Before that, Hurricane Harvey drowned some parts of Texas in 50 inches of rain over the course of five days. The warming climate is changing the shape of the jet stream, Dahl says, which means that weather patterns increasingly become stuck in place, like the ridges of high pressure that stalled Dorian over the Bahamas.  

Rising seas and stronger storms have undoubtedly made Charleston a risky place to live. Still, hurricane season is a known entity. The pandemic is not: No one knows what COVID-19 case counts will look like if (or when) a hurricane hits. The uncertainty has left coastal residents like me waiting, fingers crossed, for the best. Let’s hope that this year the weather whims of Mother Nature spare us from the nightmare scenario of a direct hurricane hit.