Hurricane Katrina heading towards New Orleans, Louisiana, in 2005. Elements of this image furnished by NASA. (Photo: lavizzara/Shutterstock) Hurricane Katrina heading towards New Orleans, Louisiana, in 2005. Elements of this image furnished by NASA. (Photo: lavizzara/Shutterstock)

With 18 named storms, the 2019 hurricane season battered homes and businesses along the Eastern seaboard and Gulf Coasts. Hurricane Dorian, the season’s largest storm, resulted in insured losses estimated between $500 million and $1.6 billion. Tropical Storm Imelda, the season’s weakest tropical storm to make landfall in the U.S., accounted for about $2 billion in damages after flooding Texas.

This year, researchers are expecting a more active season than usual, forecasting around 140 percent more activity than the average season. Hurricane forecasters at Colorado State University have predicted 16 named tropical storms, with eight of those becoming hurricanes. Of those eight, four are expected to become major hurricanes.

All signs point toward yet another arduous, damaging hurricane season — but this year, our preparations face the added challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 and disaster planning

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken lives and livelihoods across the country and forced individuals and their businesses to adapt to a new way of life. Social distancing has become critical as we attempt to limit the spread of the virus.

In Florida, this has been the greatest obstacle to hurricane planning so far. Normally, emergency management staff would be preparing shelters for evacuations during major natural disasters. Now, it is unclear whether people will be willing or able to leave their homes and head to a hurricane shelter during a storm due to social distancing concerns. Even if people are willing, emergency management staff may need to find an effective way to shelter thousands of people while continuing social distancing practices.

Furthermore, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) seems to be stretched a bit thin by the pandemic, limiting its resources and ability to support local agencies in the event of a major hurricane. The extent of these limitations is yet to be determined.

In addition to these concerns, Florida and other states face unique supply shortages. The pandemic has created a country-wide need for personal protective equipment and disinfectants. In the wake of a hurricane, shelters would need greater quantities of these resources to handle the volume of people seeking refuge. They would also need sufficient food and medical supplies, which may be challenging to find due to the current economic disruption.

States and their local agencies will have a difficult time responding to this season’s hurricanes. This means businesses and families must begin their own disaster planning.

Insurance agents and brokers should consider taking this opportunity to reach out to their clients with best practices for protecting themselves amid both a pandemic and potential hurricanes. Proper planning will not only improve their safety but will also reduce the burden on local shelters and first responders during these difficult times.

Hurricane preparedness

Talking to insureds about disaster planning is best done long before the event and by urging them to act now, not later, to create a plan and to make all necessary preparations. Hurricane season may not officially begin until June 1, but nature doesn’t work on human timelines.

There’s usually very little warning when disaster strikes. For those who are physically and financially able, vacating their homes and moving to a location that is unlikely to be impacted by the storm is a safe bet. People should make arrangements with family members or friends, or even try to secure an otherwise empty hotel room at least 100 miles inland from their home. Any housing or shelter arrangements should be made with the understanding their stay may be for an extended period of time while the neighborhoods they call ‘home’ work to recover.

Since hotels are currently empty, some people should consider advance reservations for hotel rooms in safe locations. There may be small deposits required, but that is peace of mind you can’t put a price on. By staying elsewhere, evacuees avoid crowded shelters in the middle of a pandemic, keeping them safe and reducing the burden on shelter workers and other displaced residents who may not have the resources to find alternative lodging. Careful negotiation with hotels should yield a pricing structure that will not exceed the Additional Living Expense policy limits that, if applicable, might apply.

If clients are unable to leave the area, ensuring their homes are prepared for potential hurricanes is essential. They should secure any large items to reduce the risk of personal or property damage and seal any openings to prevent water damage. They also should take a walk around their property to search for any potential issues, such as weak trees and branches that could fall and damage the house. A critical preparation all homeowners should take if they live in an area prone to hurricanes is installing storm shutters to protect windows and glass doors from breaking or installing premeasured, precut window protection such as plywood panels.

Clients should also prepare a 72-hour emergency supply kit. Generally, these kits include food, water, blankets, a change of clothes, flashlights, batteries, a fire extinguisher, cell phone chargers and any needed medications. In light of COVID-19, these kits will also need sanitizer, soap, face masks and gloves.

Often during a natural disaster, impacted individuals will face difficulties communicating with family, friends and coworkers. One workaround is to download a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) app in advance, which allows you to make calls when Wi-Fi is available, even if cellular service is not. This provides families with another way of reaching out during a crisis.

The 2020 hurricane season is expected to be a dangerous one, particularly in the wake of COVID-19. As FEMA and local agencies struggle to prepare for the impending storms, it’s important that families and businesses take the time to make plans as well. Agents and brokers can help by sharing valuable resources and practices with clients in this time of need. Such efforts ensure clients stay safe throughout this unprecedented hurricane season.

Craig Poulton is chief executive officer of Salt Lake City-based Poulton Associates, LLC, which administers various catastrophe related insurance products, including the country’s largest private flood insurance program, the Natural Catastrophe Insurance Program at CATcoverage.com. Follow him on Twitter @nciptweets. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own. 

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