People who live along the low-lying reaches of coastal Louisiana can be surprisingly sanguine about what hurricane season delivers come August. Lesser storms with names like Danny or Gustav sweep ashore and are soon forgotten. On Saturday, residents of New Orleans will observe the 15th anniversary of Katrina—the unforgettable, massive hurricane whose storm surge fed the collapse of the levees but still could not wipe their famously below-sea-level city off the map.
There’s no playbook, though, for fending off powerful hurricanes that hit in the midst of a pandemic—let alone one that arrives where the infection rate surged to one of the highest this summer. Officials guided by more than a century of hurricane preparedness have been forced to rewrite procedures this year to safeguard against spreading highly contagious COVID-19 along evacuation routes or in crowded shelters.
Although Hurricane Hanna rolled onto south Texas shores as a Category 1 storm last month, Louisiana this week was confronted with two major storms in the Gulf of Mexico at the same time. That’s a historic first, with the potential to deliver a one-two punch to southwest Louisiana.
Hurricane Laura, the greater threat, grew into a Category 4 hurricane as it crossed the warm waters of the Gulf and is on course to make landfall in southwest Louisiana early Thursday morning. Tropical Storm Marco, two days ahead of Laura, pelted rain before beginning to break up Monday—a bit of good luck for harried emergency planners, though Gov. John Bel Edwards also credits prayer.
As a back-up, he also has 2,000 National Guardsmen on standby, has positioned 94 high-water vehicles and 55 boats across the region, and has ordered up 218,000 ready-to-eat meals and 372,000 bottles of water.
But as for lodging: Those who live in Laura’s path are encouraged to find their own hotel room. As of now, Edwards has no plans to open state shelters—in part because COVID-19 is so highly contagious. Louisiana’s high infection rate this summer is outpacing Florida, Arizona, and New York; on Monday, the state reported 622 new cases of the disease and 18 new deaths.
“I will tell you, congregate sheltering in COVID is really a last resort—we still have the 15th or so highest caseload growth in the country and about the same highest positivity as well,” Edwards said at a briefing Monday, referring to the rate at which tests for the virus come back positive. “But we are doing better.”
If the situation changes as Laura closes in, shelters could open for families, who could be housed together in tents inside shelter facilities. “But still,” Edwards added, “even when you take the maximum precautions, it’s not a safe situation, so you wouldn’t want to do it unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Scientists predict double disaster
Louisiana’s experience after Laura washes ashore may also serve as a primer across the Southeast hurricane zone in an unusually active season. Forecasters said the area could see from 13 to 19 named storms before the season ends Nov. 1, and as many as six major hurricanes.
Before Marco and Laura even registered as tropical disturbances in the Atlantic Ocean, scientists cautioned that major storms could lead to the spread of more COVID-19 infections.
New research by scientists from Columbia University and the Union of Concerned Scientists found that fierce storms ranked as Category 3 or higher could result in thousands of new COVID-19 infections. The scientists modeled an infection scenario by retracing the evacuation routes of the 2.3 million southeastern Floridians who fled Hurricane Irma in 2017. That same number of evacuees on the move today could prompt as many as 61,000 new cases of COVID-19, the study found. It is still undergoing peer review before publication in a scientific journal.
The caseload mounts when people are evacuated to areas with high infection rates. In a hypothetical scenario, when evacuees fled to counties with low COVID-19 incidence, the numbers of anticipated new cases dropped to as few as 9,100.
“We just used the Florida situation as an example of outcomes and what could be modeled should an actual hurricane be projected to make landfall,” says Jeffrey Shaman, an environmental scientist at Columbia University. “We would imagine that the findings would hold in other situations.”
Karl Kim, the executive director at the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center at the University of Hawaii, says two main obstacles raise pandemic risks during natural disasters: the public’s resistance to evacuations, and the lack of resources to provide safe conditions, testing, and contact tracing.
“Everything has changed,” says Marketa Garner Walters, who heads Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services and has been trying to draw up plans for evacuees should shelters open. “It will be hard. We will be adjusting on the fly every moment. How are you going to police people and make them keep their mask on? …. What if they refuse? What will we do? All those things will be things we’re working with staff on. Do I have concerns? Yes, huge concerns. Do I know we will meet the challenge? Absolutely.”
Enough space for everyone?
For big storms, the standard practice in the low-lying areas of southern Louisiana is for residents to evacuate out of harm’s way north to higher ground in Louisiana or Mississippi, or west to Texas.
But low-lying parishes such as Orleans, which is coterminous with New Orleans city, also prepare to shelter those who can’t afford hotels, don’t have cars, or have disabilities that makes evacuation more precarious. In New Orleans alone, that adds up to as many as 40,000 residents, says Collin Arnold, the city’s homeland security director. Still, he says he’s prepared with enough N-95 masks and a plan for social distancing to move all of that group—which accounts for 10 percent of the city’s population—onto buses, trains, even planes. But that assumes he’d have enough time, a necessity that Mother Nature sometimes cuts shorts.
Next door to Orleans Parish in Jefferson Parish, Joseph Valiente, the parish homeland security director, is at work remaking hurricane plans. He’s stashed 200,000 masks in a warehouse. Social distancing has put him on the prowl for additional shelter space; parish shelters that usually house 230 people now can take just 130 people. And with that comes what he calls the “domino effect”: More shelters means more workers to staff them. As for busing people out, Valiente’s less optimistic than his counterpart Arnold in New Orleans. A bus holds only so many people at a time, he says.
In Lafourche Parish, which spreads out over southern Louisiana into islands and fingers of land jutting into the Gulf, Chris Boudreaux, the parish homeland security director, is readying the Raceland Recreation Center to take in stragglers. Six arrived and stayed briefly as Marco’s winds began to buffet the coastline. For Laura, he’ll fall back on 19 years of experience as a volunteer firefighter.
“We respond to just about everything there is in the book, but this is different,” Boudreaux says. “It’s stressful not knowing. We have to fight something we can’t see.” He means the virus.
His solution? “Treat everybody as if you have it.”
By Saturday, Katrina’s anniversary, Laura will be diminished and on her way north and east across the South. Unlike the commemoration of Katrina’s 10th anniversary, which brought Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton to New Orleans in a week full of events, the 15th anniversary will be a lesser affair. The only official function scheduled is a wreath-laying ceremony—and by then Boudreaux, Valiente, and Arnold hope to be mopping up after one of those summer storms that come and go.
Laura Parker contributed reporting to this article.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Hurricane Laura's status on the evening of August 26.