Fighting a Pandemic During Hurricane Season

By Susan Ladika May 28, 2020
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storm surge at beach

​As the hurricane season quickly approaches, HR leaders can't expect to rely on their previous hurricane planning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With social distancing in place to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus and a busier-than-normal hurricane season predicted, organizations need to consider how to "edit our normal preparations," said Heather Deyrieux, SHRM-SCP, president of the HR Florida State Council, a SHRM affiliate.

According to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1. The Colorado State University forecast calls for 16 named storms this year, compared to an average of 12, and eight hurricanes, compared to the average of six. NOAA is predicting 13 to 19 named storms, of which six to 10 could become hurricanes. Scientists expect three to six will be major storms with winds of 111 mph or higher.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

And even though hurricane season has not officially begun, May has already brought two tropical storms, Arthur and Bertha.

Major hurricanes are becoming more common because of global warning, a just-released study by NOAA and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found. The study examined almost 40 years of storm data from around the world and found that the probability of hurricanes becoming a Category 3 storm or higher, with wind speeds of at least 111 mph, increased about 8 percent per decade.

Add to that the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 1.5 million cases and nearly 100,000 deaths in the United States, and that means "you can't prepare [for weather emergencies] in the way you did in the past," said Karen Wilhite, regional manager for the Duluth, Ga.,-based staffing firm Hire Dynamics.

Yet many organizations have failed to modify their hurricane plans, said Alex Vaccaro, senior vice president of marketing for AlertMedia, which provides notification systems.

The company recently held a webinar on preparing for a hurricane during a pandemic and conducted a poll of participants. Of the roughly 400 businesses that took part, 86 percent had not updated their hurricane preparedness plan, Vaccaro said. HR departments "are so inundated dealing with [the pandemic]."

Before the Storm

If a hurricane is predicted, "it's important to get ahead of the communication" so employees know what is expected of them, Vaccaro said. "If they're left in the dark, they're going to start Googling or guessing what to do."

Before a hurricane nears, HR departments should collect employees' contact information, including cellphone numbers, personal e-mail addresses and emergency contacts, and have a printout with all the information on hand, said Deyrieux, who is the manager of workforce planning for Sarasota County in Florida.

Because many offices have shut down and employees are working remotely, organizations also need to know exactly where their employees are. For instance, Vaccaro, who usually works at AlertMedia's headquarters in Austin, Texas, is currently visiting family in Florida. Homes serve as "hundreds of little satellite offices," Vaccaro said.

Working from home can make preparing for a hurricane, such as by putting up hurricane shutters, easier for employees, Deyrieux said. Typically, organizations need to consider when employees should be sent home to have time to prepare. If employees are working remotely, organizations need to designate who will come in and secure the office before the storm hits, she said.

Employees also need to be sure to get their personal hurricane supplies in order sooner rather than later, as many stores are enforcing social distancing and operating for fewer hours. This year, hurricane kits should include such items as masks, hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment, said Wilhite, whose company has about 400 employees in the Southeast and Texas.

Deyrieux explained that because of the pandemic, "shelter in place is probably going to be the way recommendations will go this year."

Employees who need to evacuate should be prepared to do so sooner than usual, Wilhite suggested, because "shelters are going to fill up quicker because of social distancing." Even if an organization is in an area that doesn't typically get hit by hurricanes, that location could draw evacuees, she said. "[These places] are going to be impacted more than they ever have."

After the Storm

After the storm has passed, members of the HR department should check in on employees to see how they fared, Wilhite said.

Many employees have been working from home for weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak, so during a busy hurricane season, "it could be a blessing that everyone is used to working remotely," Deyrieux said.

However, power outages can pose major problems. Previously, employees might have gone to a library or coffee shop to work if their homes lost electricity, but those may now be closed because of the pandemic, she said. Companies may be able to use the workplace "as part of the re-entry plan," she suggested, with employees coming to the office on rotating shifts or for just long enough to charge their electronic devices.

Hire Dynamics has a large van outfitted with three desks that is usually used as a remote recruiting center, but the company has also deployed it following natural disasters, Wilhite said. Staff can use electricity from the van and set up workspaces under a large tent to continue to serve clients.

With the combination of a pandemic and hurricane season, organizations need to "plan for the worst and hope for the best," Deyrieux said.

Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.

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