By Jamie Aten & Kent Annan
Can a public health disaster affect our ability to recover from natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires and earthquakes?
Absolutely, and here’s why: For the foreseeable future these tragedies are happening in the context of an ongoing global pandemic.
One challenge is that well-intentioned volunteers can make the situation worse for survivors.
For this reason, it’s essential that Christians who want to offer help that actually helps consider the challenges faced during natural disasters over the last 20 years—as well as the additional difficulties a pandemic would have stacked on top of them.
1. Requisite safety precautions become more challenging in crisis conditions.
COVID-19 safety precautions like wearing masks, socially distancing, and hygiene practices become even more challenging after a natural disaster.
When daily living becomes chaotic and disordered—for example, when displaced residents lack access to personal bathrooms and kitchens—contact with more strangers often becomes necessary.
Just getting out of a city can be a public health nightmare. Clogged highways and dirty bathrooms are often a challenge, but extreme circumstances can present even more danger.
For example, many New Orleans residents had no means of transportation when trying to escape Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Some survived the storm and flooding, but died of heat dehydration while waiting for city buses to rescue them.
Just last month, more than 730,000 power outages crippled Texas and Louisiana after Hurricane Laura. Evacuating one’s home becomes a whole new ball game under social distancing rules, as many Californians found this summer.
2. Nonprofits are already struggling.
Many ministries and non-profits that play a major role in helping after disasters are facing financial challenges and layoffs, and these organizations will struggle to mobilize volunteers in the numbers they usually would.
Plus, fewer church volunteers from outside the affected area can be mobilized because of travel guidelines/restrictions. And many disaster relief groups rely on older adult volunteers who won’t be available because of COVID-19 health risks.
Volunteers were even told to stop helping by local Nashville officials after deadly tornadoes hit the area this March as the number of COVID cases climbed in their community.
3. Healthcare systems are already overtaxed.
Hospitals and other emergency care facilities in many areas are already bearing a heavy burden caring for those suffering from COVID-19.
A natural disaster only increases the weight of hospitals’ current burden, as many more people flood the waiting rooms.
Imagine the nightmare a community might face dealing with asbestos after an earthquake, for example, on top of a COVID-19 outbreak. Even symptoms of smoke exposure from wildfires may mimic COVID symptoms, and vice versa.
4. Many of those affected are already financially unstable.
Many Americans have reported they would be on the brink of financial ruin if they encountered a significant unexpected monetary expense.
Just prior to the pandemic, one study found that nearly 40% of Americans would have to take out a loan to cover an unexpected $1,000 expense.
Now, eight months later, jobless claims continue to top one million weekly for the month of August— and Congress’ $600 unemployment benefit ended in July.
States and individuals impacted by a flood, fire or earthquake will likely suffer displacement and even more loss of work, in addition to the added expenses of recovery.
Experts estimate that Hurricane Katrina cost more than $100 billion; this year’s California wildfires may cost more than $20 billion, according to one researcher.
5. The most vulnerable aren’t adequately prepared to weather a storm.
Recent studies showed most people do not have the means to prepare for a disaster, especially the people who would be most vulnerable to a disaster’s effects.
Recommended precautions available to those with more disposable income—evacuation, boarding up homes, stocking food and medical supplies—aren’t an option for those without adequate financial resources.
Even the most basic hurricane preparedness kits run several hundred dollars. Churches should especially keep an eye on older adults in the congregation, who may have already been quarantining away from friends and family and are most at risk.
6. Previous solutions for housing survivors together are now untenable.
Remember the Superdome? Thirty thousand people took refuge there during and after Katrina, with another 25,000 crammed into the nearby convention center. Yet another 25,000 survivors sheltered in the Houston Astrodome.
With soaring temperatures and squalid conditions, COVID-19 would have made that already difficult situation a nightmare.
Even the act of hosting survivors will be extremely difficult for church volunteers, because of COVID-19 related risks.
After Katrina, communities as far away as Cape Cod hosted pods of displaced people. It’s difficult to predict what the landscape will look like now for those searching for temporary housing, though some companies are already trying to help.
7. Those affected have already been impacted by pandemic-related housing instability.
Many people have already lost their homes or been evicted as a result of the pandemic. For twelve weeks straight, Louisiana and Texas residents surveyed by the Census Bureau reported housing insecurity rates between 24% and 37%.
Then Hurricane Laura hit. Vulnerability begets vulnerability. It also strains existing social safety nets, like when cholera broke out in Haiti 10 months after the 2010 earthquakes had devastated that country.
The lack of infrastructure created the perfect unsanitary conditions for that disease to spread, hitting hardest those who had already lost the most.
8. The same population most impacted by COVID-19 will also be hardest hit by new disasters.
When disaster strikes, minority communities suffer more and suffer longer.
In Census Bureau surveys, people of color are more likely to report experiencing a loss of employment than white people, more likely to expect loss of employment than white people, and by one measure, nearly three times more likely to report food insecurity than white people.
Some survivors will have the resources to adjust and to survive and thrive. But many more, particularly those who are already the most vulnerable, will face additional challenges during recovery because of COVID-19.
If you give aid, be smart about it. Offer help and financial aid through organizations you trust.
These complications are discouraging for pastors and church leaders in the face of daunting challenges. But this isn’t a time for putting our heads in the sand. We’re people of hope.
In an already tenuous situation, here’s an opportunity for churches to heed a central command given through the prophet Isaiah:
“To loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
KENT ANNAN, M.Div. (@kentannan), is director of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College. He is author of Slow Kingdom Coming and After Shock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World Is Shaken. Follow him online at kentannan.com.