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Disaster Preparedness: How Ready Are We For Hurricane Season?

The 2023 Atlantic hurricane season is officially underway. In the first month, we experienced three named storms reserved for this year, with the emergence of Tropical Storms Arlene, Bret, and Cindy.

While time will tell how the season plays out and how far down the alphabet we go, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) remains at the ready for disaster preparedness, following its prediction of near-normal hurricane activity for the year.

NOAA Weather: Staying a step ahead with storm tracking and disaster preparedness

NOAA’s acting Administrator, Ben Friedman, is quick to remind us that “it only takes one storm to devastate a community.” With such vigilance in mind, in 2021, NOAA took disaster preparedness to the next level with new technology and protocols to improve continuous monitoring and forecasting, including:

  • Enhancements to its flagship Global Forecast System to improve hurricane genesis forecasting, coupled with a wave model, extending ocean wave forecasts from 10 days out to 16 days.
  • Inclusion of Global Positioning Satellite Radio Occultation (GPS-RO) data in the Global Forecast System, providing an additional source of observations to strengthen overall model performance.
  • An upgraded probabilistic storm surge model, called P-Surge, for forecasters at the National Hurricane Center, which improves tropical cyclone wind structure and storm size information for better predictability and accuracy.
  • Deployment of the largest array of air and water uncrewed drone systems to gather data designed to help improve hurricane intensity forecasts and forecast models. These drones will fly into the lower part of hurricanes, and in the ocean, to track various parts of the tropical storm lifecycle.

This NOAA “know-how” provides confidence and promise for early storm detection, but just how ready is the public on the ground?

Florida Hurricane Study: Population cites concerns, but evacuation and preparedness planning lacking

According to a new statewide survey of Florida residents, more than half do not have an evacuation plan nor emergency preparedness items in the event of a hurricane.

This study, carried out by researchers at the University of South Florida’s School of Public Affairs, found that 81% of the 600 Floridians interviewed are “very or somewhat concerned” about the 2021 hurricane season, and that their household “would be severely or somewhat effected by a category 3 or higher storm.” Despite this concern, 58% of the survey population indicated they lacked an evacuation plan, while 56% did not have a NOAA weather radio and 51% did not have a stocked emergency kit.

Furthermore, while the study highlighted that most survey respondents (72%) said they would be “very or somewhat likely to leave if an evacuation order was issued,” there were several concerns that stood in the way of seeking safety and resources away from their homes.

Among the reasons cited for avoiding hurricane evacuation:

  • Fears over safety of property left behind (76%)
  • Concerns over not being able to return quickly after the storm (78%)
  • A distrust of safety in going to public shelters (67%)
  • Concerns about COVID-19 (52%)

Other study highlights:

  • 76% believe their household could manage for three days if a hurricane left their local community without running water and electricity.
  • 86% indicated that they have a 3-day supply of required medication on hand for themselves and each member of their household.
  • Over half of the Floridians surveyed stated that finances would impact their decision to evacuate “a lot” (20%) or “a little” (30.5%) in the event of a category 3 or higher storm.

The University of South Florida researchers found with their results that residents are concerned and taking the storm season seriously, but beyond being ready with food, water, and medication, there is opportunity to improve all-around planning and evacuation measures.

“Based on prior survey results, we see a sense of self-reliance growing among Florida residents, likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Christa Remington, assistant professor of public administration at the University of South Florida and member of the research team. “Many Floridians have learned to be self-sufficient while staying home during lockdowns and quarantine, and this has translated into more emergency preparedness in some ways.”

“On the surface, most Florida residents would say that they are taking the season seriously and are ready for a category 3 or higher storm,” Remington continued. “A deeper look at the data reveals that their idea of ‘ready’ differs from that suggested by hurricane preparedness experts.”

Hurricane Readiness: Getting a plan in place

As we enter the height of hurricane season, those in a hurricane-prone area should take an honest assessment of their readiness. According to Remington, residents should:

  • Have an evacuation plan and know where the nearest shelter is that meets their needs in terms of any family members and pets who may requires special consideration. Know a backup shelter in case the first choice is full.
  • Have at least three days of food, water, and medication per person on hand, as well as pet supplies. Avoid waiting until the last minute due to the potential for panic buying experienced during the pandemic.
  • Sign up for local emergency alerts to stay up to date on developments.
  • Survey the home and address potential areas of concern like flooding and untrimmed trees before a storm is on its way. This might include putting up shutters, bringing in plants and yard furniture, or placing sandbags at entry ways. If physically unable to do these things, identify a friend or family member who can assist.

Emergency Alerts: Study sheds surprising light on communication preferences

In terms of how Floridians get their emergency alerts, there has been a trend toward more social media usage in the past decade. Because of its prevalence, public officials may assume that social media is the preferred method of communication during a crisis. However, the survey revealed a different approach. The research team was surprised to find that the majority of Floridians preferred text message alerts (61%), followed by more traditional methods of communications like television (23.5%). Social media was ranked surprisingly low at only 3.8%.

According to Remington, public officials should take note of these survey results, working to ensure confidence in local shelters and utilizing preferred methods of communication.

“We may not be hit by a storm this season, but it is vital that we prepare for the worst and avoid complacency,” she noted.

How technology can support emergency response during hurricane season

During a disaster, things don’t always go according to plan. While individuals often do not plan to evacuate, they may have to, and may not have all their essential health information or medications on hand. While an evacuation plan and/or “go-bag” would typically include medications and medical information, 58% if respondents did not have an evacuation plan and 51% did not have a “go-bag.”

Recognizing these gaps, Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration has been onboarding county health officials throughout the state to the Emergency Patient Lookup System (E-PLUS). E-PLUS allows users to access clinical care documents and medication history for patients being treated in shelters, as well as track shelter registrations and search for missing people across underlying health information exchange networks.

When individuals and families are forced to evacuate their homes and enter a disaster shelter, medical staff using E-PLUS can take better care of these individuals by accessing medical information they normally would not have available. For example, during Hurricane Ian in 2022, pharmacists used E-PLUS to assist with medication reconciliation in shelters.

Shelter registrations entered into E-PLUS are also connected to the underlying health information exchange, allowing shelter operators to better coordinate care for those who are forced to evacuate. When an individual is “checked in” to a medical shelter using E-PLUS, a real-time notification is securely sent to that person’s physicians and/or care management team making them aware of a potential disruption in healthcare and allowing faster outreach and improved care coordination with the emergency health care providers.

Disasters disproportionately affect the most vulnerable who are not able to “ride out” a storm at home. These individuals may end up disconnected from their families and care providers, even if they end up in a hospital or other health care facility. During Hurricane Ian in 2022, E-PLUS was also able to locate nearly 50 percent  of dialysis patients who were unaccounted for after the storm by leveraging its underlying connections to healthcare facilities.

Editor’s Note: Emergency Patient Lookup System (E-PLUS) is also known as PULSE in other markets outside of Florida.

Learn more about how PointClickCare can support emergency preparedness and response efforts

August 25, 2023