Strategic assessment | Latin America: Risks from hurricanes during Covid-19

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Key points

  • Natural disaster resilience across the Caribbean is under strain amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Emergency services will probably struggle to respond to an upcoming hurricane season, and the use of emergency shelters will most likely prompt renewed outbreaks of the disease.
  • A severe hurricane would probably prolong the Covid-19 crisis in coastal areas of the US, the Dominican Republic and Haiti in particular. The Bahamas is less at risk with fewer existing cases, but a spike in numbers would nonetheless be likely after a hurricane.
  • State responses to Covid-19 in Cuba and smaller island nations such as Saint Kitts and Nevis and Antigua and Barbuda appear much more resilient, and a hurricane would be unlikely to significantly disrupt containment measures in these countries.

Several long-range weather forecasts indicate that the upcoming Atlantic hurricane season will be worse than usual. This includes four hurricanes of category 3 and higher on the five-point Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, based on weather conditions in April. These have a wind speed of over 180kph and the ‘potential for significant loss of life and damage’, according to the US National Hurricane Centre. The hurricane season in the Caribbean usually lasts from June to November. This is likely to overlap with the Covid-19 pandemic, as most states there are still at a relatively early stage of their outbreaks.

We have so far not seen reports that countries vulnerable to hurricanes in the Caribbean have been adjusting their standing disaster response plans. This is probably because they are focused on containing Covid-19 outbreaks. But the pandemic poses two major challenges to disaster relief and recovery. First, ongoing outbreaks will stretch the capacity of many governments to mobilise and coordinate relief in the aftermath of a severe hurricane. Second, with social distancing measures difficult to maintain in emergency shelters, we would anticipate a spike in transmission in the weeks after a hurricane.

Perfect storm for public health

The locations where we anticipate that the healthcare systems would struggle to respond to a severe hurricane during the pandemic are the Dominican Republic, Haiti and four US states and territories: Puerto Rico, Texas, Louisiana and Florida. The health systems in the Bahamas and Cuba currently appear to be better placed to respond to a hurricane during the Covid-19 pandemic, though secondary outbreaks of the disease there would still be highly likely after landfall. Smaller island nations such as Saint Kitts and Nevis and Antigua and Barbuda are also more likely to be able to control transmission due to their small population sizes.

We assess that Puerto Rico, Louisiana, Texas and Florida are most vulnerable due to a high number of confirmed cases in these locations, based on current indications. The latter two have each confirmed more than 40,000 Covid-19 cases, Louisiana over 30,000 and Puerto Rico had 2,589 cases as of 18 May, according to the US CDC. The health services and emergency responders in all four locations that would be involved in any disaster relief plan are strained at present, given the high rate of transmission.

A major spike in infections would be highly likely in the US states and territories if people need to seek protection in mass emergency shelters. This is particularly likely in Puerto Rico, based on precedent from 2017 when the authorities took at least 2,000 people into shelters for several weeks after a category 5 hurricane made landfall. Official data shows that stay-at-home orders there seem to have slowed community transmission. But a second spike in infections is likely to further strain their health systems and disrupt disaster recovery plans in the aftermath of a hurricane.

The healthcare system of the Dominican Republic is similarly vulnerable. The authorities there reported 12,314 cases as of 18 May, according to WHO data. This data also suggests that the country is experiencing a second spike in Covid-19. Rescue workers would probably be less prepared to provide relief in the aftermath of hurricanes given that they are likely under strain and many of them at risk of themselves getting infected with the coronavirus.

Haiti’s fragile healthcare system is very likely to struggle to respond to – or recover from – a larger outbreak of Covid-19. An increase in cases is highly likely in Haiti during and after a hurricane, particularly if mass evacuations and sheltering occur. The authorities there have confirmed only 358 Covid-19 cases as of 18 May. But a shortage in medical material and equipment, as reported by the UN humanitarian affair coordination office in Haiti, means that hospitals and emergency responders are probably already strained.

Calmer after the storm

The healthcare systems of the Bahamas appear better placed to respond to and recover from a severe hurricane under current conditions. The country reported 96 cases as of 18 May, according to WHO data. The same data also suggests that it is curbing the spread of Covid-19. Emergency services would probably be more able to provide relief in the aftermath of hurricanes when under less strain and with fewer workers themselves ill with Covid-19.

The WHO rates Cuba’s healthcare system among the top 40 most efficient systems globally, and so we assess that it is relatively well prepared to manage a domestic outbreak after a hurricane. The country has recorded 1,872 Covid-19 cases as of 18 May. But mass-evacuation shelters are still likely to increase social interactions and with it the possibility of a spike in cases. Official restrictions are seemingly slowing down the spread of the disease. And based on this, the authorities will probably be able to manage a secondary peak in the case of a hurricane landfall.


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