Already reeling from Hurricane Laura, parts of Louisiana suffered through in Hurricane Delta as the American Red Cross and other responders coped with both recoveries and the lingering coronavirus outbreak.
Months ago, when COVID-19 began to spread across the country, emergency managers were thinking ahead to what would happen later in the year if a virus outbreak intersected with a hurricane. It would double the challenge.
But what about two hurricanes? That’s what happened in Louisiana.
As the state fought back the virus, it was greeted Aug. 27 by Category 4 Hurricane Laura. As the region continued to fight COVID-19 and clean up the massive debris from Laura, Hurricane Delta hit the first week of October, bringing 100 mph winds and rain up to 17 inches in some parts of the state. The rains created a surge of more than 10 inches of water in some areas.
Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter called it a “double whammy” on CNN. “Add Laura and Delta together, and it’s just absolutely unprecedented and catastrophic,” Hunter said. “We are concerned that with everything going on in the country right now that this incident may not be on the radar nationally like it should be.”
When Delta hit, there were still about 8,000 Hurricane Laura evacuees being housed in non-congregate sheltering, like hotels, who had to be monitored and fed. That number increased to around 9,300 early this week from Hurricane Delta.
And there was still debris piled everywhere, including the blue tarps that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had placed on damaged homes after Laura.
“Debris as you would typically see just a few weeks after landfall,” said American Red Cross spokesman Matthew Teter. “Delta wasn’t as strong as Laura, but the blue tarp isn’t going to survive a Cat 2 hurricane, so you’re seeing those blue tarps all over the place.”
The Red Cross is tasked with helping house and feed evacuees, and the operation is substantially different than it would have looked before the coronavirus outbreak.
“We’re working in close partnership with very local partners, like local churches and others, making sure that we get this food in the right places for the people who need it the most, and of course with the flood waters coming from the north, we are seeing new impacts [as of Sunday night],” Teter said.
Sheltering had to be done strategically to take into account the virus and had to include measures that kept the spread of the virus to a minimum. That meant housing people in the usual shelters, such as school gymnasiums, was out of the question. Evacuees, along with Red Cross staff, have been put up in hotels.
“First and foremost, we’re following all of the CDC guidelines — the face coverings, hand sanitizer everywhere, social distancing — put in back in March,” Teter said. “Our disaster management team anticipated this as soon as COVID hit and began training our workforce and tried to figure out how to work it out without changing the mission.”
Another way the operation looks different is the feeding, Teter said. Instead of Red Cross personnel driving the food trucks around, the evacuees now get their food at distribution points set up at churches and community centers, who are notified when to prepare for food distribution and how to get it in an orderly manner.
The Red Cross has re-engineered its management practices to help follow CDC guidelines as well, and many of the more than 7,000 disaster workers in Louisiana are operating virtually instead of on the ground.
“We are operating a combined disaster operation between hurricanes Laura and Delta that impacted similar areas, and it’s just devastating,” Teter said. “We’re getting it done but I have to tell you, I’ll be happy when 2020 is over.”