Safety: Catastrophe Response during a Pandemic, Part 1

This is part one of a four-part series on catastrophe response during a pandemic. Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has occupied most of our energy and time. Many have not had an opportunity to think about preparing for a hurricane or other catastrophe.

June 04, 2020
By Joe Szewczyk, TAC Risk Control Consultant and Brett Anderson, TAC Property Program Supervisor
Risk Management News

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This is part one of a four-part series on catastrophe response during a pandemic. Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has occupied most of our energy and time. Many have not had an opportunity to think about preparing for a hurricane or other catastrophe.

During the next four weeks, the Association of Counties Risk Management Pool (TAC RMP), will review preparations and suggestions for safety, human resources, law enforcement and claims during a pandemic. These suggestions plus appropriate planning and following applicable governmental guidelines can help ensure a successful disaster recovery.

COVID-19 pandemic

Texas counties face a new threat to the safety of our employees and the general public — the COVID-19 pandemic. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and World Health Organization (WHO) have long anticipated and prepared guidance for such an event. Locally, emergency planners may have based local pandemic response plans off the FEMA's Pandemic Influenza Continuity of Operations Annex Template. This template serves as a guide to develop a continuity of operations plan.

As we cope with the pandemic, we should keep in mind that it is only a matter of time before another hurricane, flood, tornado, hailstorm, windstorm or forest fire strikes Texas. Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017 with winds of up to 130 miles per hour and dumped more than 34 trillion gallons of water. The storm left 200 million cubic yards of debris, caused damage to more than 210,700 of homes and other buildings. Our county employees leapt into action to provide access to property, electrical repairs, debris removal and temporary housing.

The question we must ask ourselves is: If a catastrophic event like Hurricane Harvey were to strike during the current COVID-19 pandemic, how prepared would we be in our response? The following resources can help counties prepare for a catastrophe while in the midst of a pandemic.

The three S's in a pandemic emergency response plan

Your county's emergency response plan probably factors in tasks such as coordinating events for response to road closures, electrical outages, emergency housing and debris removal. But does your plan discuss or plan for the requirements of the three S's of a pandemic? We have been experiencing the three S's for over a month now - social distancing, sanitation, and safety equipment. The bottom line is that an effective response to any event should focus on the safety of employees and citizens first and foremost.

Sanitation — In February 2020 if you had said there is going to be a worldwide shortage on hand sanitizer and disinfectants, or distilleries like Tito's Handmade Vodka would shut down operations and begin making hand cleanser, I would have laughed until blue in the face. Well, it's four months later and that's happened and your sanitation needs for buildings and employees should be adjusted to the "new normal." If you have an emergency response plan for hurricanes, tornadoes, hail or any other natural disaster, be sure to factor in the need for sanitation supplies in the event of another shortage.

Social Distancing — Hurricane Harvey is just one example of how Texans can come together for the greater good. There were many examples of people working side-by-side to rescue people stranded in flooded homes and open make-shift shelters for displaced families. How does this happen in the new normal? Your plan may need to be adjusted to factor in social distancing during a pandemic.

Safety Equipment — Typically, employees and first responders have easy access to gloves, respirators and face masks during the typical storm or flood season. The current COVID-19 crisis has depleted many counties' personal protective equipment. As these resources begin to be restocked, evaluate the need to stock extra supplies should a significant catastrophic event occur.

Other pandemic catastrophe response considerations

Planners and pandemic response teams should include deliberate methods to measure, monitor and adjust actions to changing conditions and improved protection strategies.

  • Implement a formal worker and workplace protection strategy with metrics for assessing worker compliance and workplace cleanliness.
  • Monitor and periodically test protection methods.
  • Track and implement changes in approved or recommended protection measures.
  • Pre-position materials and equipment onsite.
  • Ensure essential personnel are at the primary worksite.
  • Confirm that essential vendors have materials and personnel on-hand and able to respond and support as planned.
  • Coordinate with local public health and emergency response points of contact to ensure open, adequate communications.

Before a Pandemic – Provide preparation suggestions to employees

  • Store additional supplies of food and water.
  • Periodically check your regular prescription drugs to ensure a continuous supply in your home.
  • Have any nonprescription drugs and other health supplies on hand, including pain relievers, stomach remedies, cough and cold medicines, fluids with electrolytes, and vitamins.
  • Print and maintain electronic copies of important health records and medical information from doctors, hospitals and pharmacies and store them for personal reference. Get help accessing electronic health records.
  • Discuss with family members and loved ones their care preferences if they become sick, or what will be needed to care for them in your home.

During a Pandemic – Encourage/enforce safety policies and guidelines to limit the spread of germs and prevent infection.

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.
  • Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Practice other good health habits. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids and eat nutritious food.
  • Americans can continue to use and drink tap water as usual during the COVID-19 pandemic. Please be sure to follow public health guidance as the situation develops.

Additional resources