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Multiple Disasters Strain Response Systems, Slow Recovery, and Deepen Inequity

As active storm and hurricane seasons layer atop a worldwide pandemic, responders and communities are feeling the effects.

A view taken during an evacuation from Oroville, Butte County of the North Complex Fire. (Photo courtesy of Mykalyn Stahr)
A view taken during an evacuation from Oroville, Butte County of the North Complex Fire. (Photo courtesy of Mykalyn Stahr)

When it comes to responding to any disaster, Andrew MacCalla, Direct Relief’s vice president of emergency response, says that three resources are vital: money, time, and supplies.

And these days, all three are highly in demand.

“It’s been nonstop since Covid,” MacCalla said. “We get asked to respond to almost everything now, so we’re all trying to manage how much time we can put into each thing.”

It’s been one of the worst fire seasons on record in California, and severe wildfires have devastated swathes of Oregon and Washington as well. The Gulf Coast has seen an active storm season, with Hurricane Delta now poised to make landfall later this week. Puerto Rico has experienced a series of earthquakes, a drought, and most recently, flooding. And that’s just in the United States.

On top of a Covid response that has included $53.6 million in funding, medicines, and supplies, and nearly 7,000 shipments thus far, Direct Relief has also mounted an active response to the wildfires, providing $1.4 million and 117 shipments to more than 30 organizations. After responding to the year’s storms, including Hurricanes Laura and Sally, with approximately $2.5 million and 202 shipments, the organization is poised for response to Hurricane Delta.

In addition to funding testing initiatives and a telehealth program and providing emergency and operating-room equipment, tents, and PPE to frontline health care providers in Puerto Rico, Direct Relief has also provided additional aid in response to the earthquakes and flooding. Since January 1, the organization has dedicated about $6.4 million to Puerto Rico.

All in all, 2020 has been Direct Relief’s most active year thus far.

For a society used to treating disasters as discrete events – Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, the Camp Fire – overlapping disasters, especially piled atop a devastating pandemic, may be overwhelming, even confusing.

And worse, when multiple disasters break out at any one time, they strain much-needed resources, from manpower to medicine, making it harder to respond effectively – and harder for communities to recover.

An unusual season

During a standard season, California has enough resources to handle its own fires, said Brad Alexander, assistant director of crisis communication’s at California’s Office of Emergency Services. If help is needed, Oregon and Washington are usually among the first states to provide it.

This year has been considerably more challenging. California hosted firefighters from Canada, Mexico, and Israel, along with less usually called-upon states like Montana, Texas, and New Jersey.

“We have thousands of firefighters in the state, and we’ve essentially put every mutual aid engine on the street,” Alexander said, speaking in mid-September. “As soon as the firefighters are off one engine, we put them on another to fight another fire…They’re just getting the minimal amount of rest, and then back out to duty.”

That description likely wouldn’t surprise Tricia Wachtendorf, a sociology professor and director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.

Multiple disasters make “the ability to rely on mutual aid agreements much more difficult,” she said. “If we have multiple events that are taking place in surrounding areas, that surge capacity has to come from further away.” That means emergency responders may take longer to get there and be less familiar with the terrain or situation when they arrive.

Volunteer pilots prepare to ship supplies to Oregon on September 19, 2020, as part of Direct Relief's response to the wildfires burning in the West. (Tony Morain/Direct Relief)
Volunteer pilots prepare to ship supplies to Oregon on September 19, 2020, as part of Direct Relief’s response to the wildfires burning in the West. (Tony Morain/Direct Relief)

In addition, when it comes to overlapping events, like the wildfires and the Covid-19 pandemic, “you may still be in the middle of a response, and your response to the next event might be complicated by the fact that that other event has not yet been completed,” Wachtendorf said.

That’s been especially complicated during the pandemic because its demands often contradict those of emergency response.

“We have fairly proven ways of dealing with population during protection,” said James Schultz, a professor at the University of Miami’s medical school and director of its Center for Disaster and Extreme Event Preparedness. Evacuation – which Shultz explains means gathering people together – is a part of that. “Where we have more equivocal evidence is how you safeguard them once they are together,” he said.

For Shultz, living in hurricane-prone Florida, the question of how best to respond to concurrent disasters is a personal one. “This is not so academic. This is literally in my hometown,” he said.

Living through disasters

It’s not just first responders and NGOs that are strained by multiple disasters. First and foremost, they’re hard on the people who live through them – although researchers are still learning precisely how.

Although a lot is known about individual traumas, “we don’t have something similar at the collective level,” said Lori Peeks, a sociology professor and director of the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Natural Hazards Center. “What about when people live through multiple collective traumas where their entire communities have been evacuated multiple times?”

For one thing, researchers already know that disasters aren’t equally destructive to all. They’re more likely to devastate those who are already vulnerable – people who are low-income, Black or brown, elderly, already ill, not speakers of English.

And new research, Peek said, suggests that multiple disasters “exacerbate those existing inequalities and make them worse.” There’s even evidence that, while multiple disasters can cause financial devastation for poorer Black Americans, higher-income white Americans may experience an increase in wealth over time.

Multiple disasters also endanger people’s ability to get the support they need, Peek said. She pointed to Hurricane Sally, which despite being a destructive, major hurricane, “was barely in the national news for a day,” she said. “If you don’t garner the national media, you’re not going to garner the resources and support…
More and more communities are just feeling overlooked, left behind.”

Recovery may take longer and place more stress on the people who experience multiple disasters, Wachtendorf said: “People just get exhausted. Those support networks may be frayed,” meaning that it’s harder for them to receive informal assistance or support, to recover property losses, and to rebuild their lives.

And they may be less likely to evacuate if another disaster occurs – whether from exhaustion or lack of available resources.

Concurrent or recurring disasters – for example, Butte County, already devastated by 2018’s Camp Fire, is currently confronting the vast North Complex Fire – also have significant mental health impacts, said Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA who focuses on disasters.

“We have more stressors…and on the other hands, we have limited sources for positive emotions” when one disaster after another occurs. “We kind of find ourselves in this one-two punch of more stress and fewer coping possibilities.”

Some good news: Wachtendorf said that many disaster-prone communities may develop a “disaster subculture” over time, making them more knowledgeable, organized, and prepared for future events.

A non-discrete event

It may feel like disasters are coming harder and faster than ever. In ways that’s true, as disaster seasons grow more active or severe, and everything happens against a background of Covid-19. But disasters have always been compounding events, Peek said.

She used the example of Hurricane Katrina. Primarily famous as the storm that breached levies and brought catastrophic flooding, Katrina also caused a series of devastating oil spills off the Gulf Coast and a tornado outbreak that reached as far as Pennsylvania. A few short weeks later, Katrina was followed by another major Gulf Coast storm, Hurricane Rita.

For a long time, researchers and policy makers often treated disasters “as though they were discrete events,” Peek said. “Our moment is obviously teaching us how important it is to think about people and systems when there are multiple disasters that are unfolding simultaneously.”

A natural disaster, for example, may lead to a cholera outbreak, as the 2010 Haiti earthquake did. It may not always be clear which of these events is whose responsibility.

But we’re going to have to figure it out, according to Peek.

“The world that we are living in right now, emergency managers haven’t even finished their one deployment…and then another disaster happens,” she said. “There’s a layering that is happening with disasters that is outstripping our resources.”

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