The Journal Gazette
Sunday, May 24, 2020 1:00 am

Spring storms complicate pandemic stress

Janet McCabe and Chad Priest

 As Hoosiers take shelter from COVID-19, it's also important to prepare for other threats that visit our communities each spring in the form of flooding and tornadoes. Dealing with severe weather disasters is challenging in the best of times, but with health care workers and first responders stretched thin, appropriate planning takes on new importance today.

Yes, spring is here, and for the Midwest, that means a higher risk of floods and tornadoes. Forecasting from The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center calls for “above-average precipitation in the central and eastern United States.” And while this year may not match the historic 2019 floods, significant rainfall events could still trigger flood conditions and put people and communities at risk.

Tornadoes are also a threat to the Hoosier state, and spring is prime tornado season. In 2017, 220 people needed emergency shelter from a destructive tornado in Kokomo, requiring massive response and recovery operations. And at the end of March, two EF-2 tornadoes hit Newburgh, requiring some 3,000 people to respond — while keeping appropriate social distance — to a disaster that still has that community reeling.

While community preparedness is always essential, this spring we need to think about it in the context of a pandemic. Response and recovery would take longer and be much more complicated than usual. Supply lines may not be functioning, hospitals may be overflowing and underequipped and medical professionals may be swamped. Loss of income during this economic downturn creates additional stresses, especially for families who may be vulnerable to the sudden financial impact of a damaging weather event.

The question for all communities is: “Are we ready?” State and local governments, agencies and community partners across the country are poring over complexities the pandemic adds to emergency plans.

Our systems are still in place, but they are certainly being adapted.

The Red Cross, for example, is considering how the virus would affect community response amid continued social distancing. Clearly sheltering protocols and other efforts will be altered due to the pandemic, with coordinated guidance from public health officials.

The Red Cross will identify hotels as shelters instead of traditional locations such as school gyms or community centers. Six-foot separation will be maintained for key functions (e.g., registration, food dropoff, etc.), and meals will be individually packaged. A temperature screening and monitoring system will put be in place, with isolation areas built for symptomatic/diagnosed individuals.

Hoosiers can also ease the burden on emergency responders by preparing for severe weather events.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Emergency Management Agency offer tips regarding flooding, while has important general information on disaster preparedness. Easy steps such as clearing out storm drains can reduce surface flooding. And Hoosiers can also sign up to give blood or volunteer at

Local governments can evaluate their capacity to handle the more frequent extreme weather we are seeing in the Midwest and help address the weak spots. The Hoosier Resilience Index, developed by Indiana University's Environmental Resilience Institute, is a good place to start.

By thinking ahead and taking action now, local governments and communities can reduce their vulnerabilities. Preparation for natural disasters is always important

In these uncertain times, it is essential.

Janet McCabe is director of the Environmental Resilience Institute at Indiana University. Chad Priest is CEO of the American Red Cross-Indiana Region.

Sign up for our Opinion newsletter

Sent daily