Rachel McMonagleToday’s guest blogger is Rachel McMonagle, climate change program manager for APHA’s Center for Climate, Health and Equity.

In May, catastrophic dam failures in central Michigan flooded nearby communities, forcing about 10,000 people to flee their homes. Halfway around the world and just a day after the Michigan floods, Cyclone Amphan wreaked havoc in India and Bangladesh, killing more than 110 people.

Such events are only getting more common and intense due to climate change, and as COVID-19 continues to spread, the response and recovery related to natural disasters is about to get a lot more complex. The dual disasters of COVID-19 and natural disasters are expected to challenge communities in unprecedented ways.

Unfortunately, the populations least resilient to natural disasters are also the ones being hit hardest by COVID-19. In fact, many of the same structural, racial and health inequities that factor into COVID-19 disparities also underpin the disparate health effects of climate change.

As the nation moves into hurricane season, communities already experiencing heightened socioeconomic vulnerabilities due to COVID-19 face three key challenges:

  • Limited resources: COVID-19 has already overwhelmed local emergency response resources, leaving responders with limited workforce capacity, supplies and essential goods, such as food, drinking water and medication. For families and people already dealing with unemployment or loss of income, a natural disaster would further threaten their stability and health.
  • Mixed messaging: Public safety announcements for natural disasters, such as calls to evacuate to shelters, contradict much of the messaging around COVID-19, such as staying at home and avoiding crowded, indoor spaces. In turn, it is critical that local leaders be clear in their public communications and partner with trusted community messengers to reach vulnerable residents.
  • Mental health challenges: U.S. adults are already reporting heightened levels of stress and anxiety due to COVID-19 and its health, economic and social impacts, and a natural disaster would certainly add to that burden. At the same time, many communities are facing a shortage of mental health providers. 

Thankfully, guidance is emerging to support local leaders as they plan for the dual disasters. For example, the American Flood Coalition recently released a handbook for local officials on readying for and responding to floods during COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a set of resources to help residents prepare for disasters during the pandemic, with guidance on preparing for hurricanes during COVID-19, as well as how to avoid COVID-19 at public disaster shelters. Given the extreme heat anticipated this summer, CDC also released guidance on reducing COVID-19 risks in cooling centers

These resources are a critical first step toward building immediate climate resilience and enhancing dual disaster preparedness. However, for the longer term, national and local leaders must focus on developing solutions that prioritize the needs of at-risk populations and re-evaluate the unjust laws and policies that created these structural and racial inequities in the first place.

When that happens, we can make real progress toward building climate resilience as a united society, with solutions that uplift and protect the health and well-being of all communities. 

Visit APHA’s Climate Change page for more resources on climate change and COVID-19. For more about staying safe from storms during the pandemic, see APHA's recent news release.