May 22, 2020 10:50 am
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Categories: American Red Cross Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Disasters and Emergencies Environment Federal Emergency Management Agency Global Warming Greenhouse Gas Emissions Habitat for Humanity Nonprofit Organizations NY Times Volunteers and Community Service

WASHINGTON — For decades, the backbone of the nation’s disaster response system — and a hallmark of American generosity — has been its army of volunteers who race toward danger to help shelter, feed and counsel victims of hurricanes, wildfires and other calamities.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed a critical weakness in this system: Most volunteers are older people at higher risk from the virus, so this year they can’t participate in person. Typically more than five million volunteers work in disaster relief annually, said Greg Forrester, president of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, an association of nonprofit groups, but this year he expects the number to decline by 50 percent.

Asked how disaster relief efforts can meet the usual demand with half as many people, Mr. Forrester said: “You won’t.”

It is the latest in a cascading series of problems facing an already fraying system ahead of what is expected to be an unusually severe hurricane season combined with disasters like this week’s dam collapse and flooding in Michigan, a state particularly hard hit by Covid-19.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is running short of highly trained personnel as the virus depletes its staff. Longstanding procedures for sheltering victims in gymnasiums or other crowded spaces suddenly are dangerous because they risk worsening the pandemic. And traditional agreements among states to help each other if crisis strikes are now sputtering as states remain wary of exposing their own people to the virus.

It amounts to one of the most severe tests in decades for a system designed to respond to local or regional storms or other disasters — not a crisis on a national scale. Yet FEMA has been forced to take a primary role in Covid-19, deploying more than 3,000 staff nationwide and effectively running its first 50-state disaster response.

“A pandemic complicates every aspect of disaster planning and response in a way that we have never experienced before,” said Chris Currie, who leads the team at the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office that looks at emergency management. “You’re only as good as the weakest link.”

FEMA says it has taken steps to prepare for hurricane season, including expanding its coordination center in Washington, hiring staff and working with state and local officials and nonprofits toapt to the pandemic. “We have not taken our eye off the ball about handling other disasters that may occur during this time,” Peter Gaynor, FEMA’sministrator, said in a briefing this month.

On Wednesday, the agency said it intended to avoid, as much as possible, sending relief staff into disaster zones this year, instead relying on “virtual” assistance such as talking to survivors by phone, using photos or other documentation of storm damage to approve claims and meeting with state and local counterparts online rather than in person.

ImagePeter Gaynor, FEMA’sministrator, at a White House coronavirus briefing in March.
Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times

Volunteers are key to America’s disaster response, distributing supplies, clearing debris, and rebuilding homes. In interviews, executives with the nonprofit organizations like the Salvation Army that help organize volunteer teams said that, in normal years, they would be training and equipping thousands of people and flying them to whichever part of the country needs help, then housing and feeding them in close quarters.

Suddenly, none of that works.

Three-quarters of the Salvation Army’s volunteers for most disasters are 65 or older, according to Jeff Jellets, the group’s disaster coordinator for the southern United States. For those people, “We’re telling them, maybe this isn’t the best time for you to deploy,” he said, given that older people are at particularly high risk from Covid-19.

The consequences could be enormous: The Salvation Army has more than 2.7 million volunteers annually for everything from disaster response to after-school programs and vocational programs. Disaster volunteers worked 3.5 million hours during the 2017 hurricane season.

The Salvation Army is considering using more paid staff and housing them in hotels rather than dormitories. But that’s expensive, Mr. Jellets said, and the pandemic has closed the Salvation Army’s thrift stores, which bring in almost in $600 million annually in sales.

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Habitat for Humanity, which last year helped rebuild or repair almost 700 homes damaged by disasters in the United States, also gets many of its volunteers from older Americans, according to Jonathan Reckford, the chief executive officer. Given the risks of air travel combined with the danger that volunteers inadvertently bring the disease into a community they’re trying to help, Mr. Reckford said Habitat for Humanity had hit pause, for now, on deploying any volunteers.

Overall, the organization fielded 1.2 million volunteers last year for all its work. It did not break out a number for disaster response.

That means its group quite likely won’t be able to respond the way it usually does if a hurricane were to strike the United States this year. “It’s our greatest fear right now,” Mr. Reckford said.

If a disaster struck a part of the country that was under large-scale quarantine, “we would really have to back away from some of our response in those areas,” Mary Casey-Lockyer, a senior associate with the disaster health program for the American Red Cross, said during a webinar for nonprofits last week. The Red Cross deployed 9,000 workers to large disasters last year; it expects to deploy half as many volunteers as usual in person this year.

“I don’t want to imagine a world where it’s so bad we can’t respond,”ded Cathy Earl, director of disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which has 10,000 volunteers around the country who work on disaster response. She said it was hard to project how many volunteers would be deployed this year, but called a 50 percent decrease “a reasonable estimate.”

The volunteer shortage threatens to ripple through the nation’s disaster response system, exacerbating other problems.

One spillover effect will be financial. Under federal law, state or local governments typically have to put up $25 for every $75 the federal government provides for disaster relief. But they’re allowed to count the services of volunteers toward that amount, Mr. Forrester said.


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  • Frequently Asked Questions andvice

    Updated May 20, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has alsoded chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., hasvised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give youvice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.


As a result, fewer volunteers means cities, counties and states need to come up with more of their own money to get federal aid.

But local governments are already struggling financially from the virus. Counties alone have seen $144 billion in lost income and increased expenditures, more than one-fifth of their total budgets, according to the National Association of Counties. “Our costs are skyrocketing and our revenues are plummeting,” said Paul Guequierre, a spokesman for the association.

Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

At the same time, the federal government is asking local officials to take on new tasks.

One of the toughest challenges will be evacuating and sheltering people without spreading the virus. This week following the dam collapse in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer acknowledged that social distancing in shelters would be difficult.

This week FEMA advised state and local governments to find backup sources for supplies, find ways to distribute them without physical contact, figure out how to stop disaster survivors from gathering in groups, and to do all that with “diminished support” from volunteers.

In its new guidance, FEMA also laid out a host of new challenges facing disaster shelters. Local officials, it said, must find more space, and come up with a plan to shelter people with Covid-19.

FEMA even urged local officials to revise their plans for dealing with disaster victims’ pets, since spacing rules at shelters means there might not be room for them.

When states don’t have enough people to respond to a disaster, they usually start by asking other states to send their own emergency management teams. But with Covid-19, “They’re not sure what they might need in their own states,” said Joyce Flinn, Iowa’s emergency management director and head of the committee at the National Emergency Management Association that oversees the mutual-aid system.

When those options prove inadequate, cities and states are meant to turn to FEMA for support. However, the agency was already stretched thin as climate change makes disasters more frequent and intense. The virus crisis has stretched it further.

Brock Long, who headed FEMA during the catastrophic hurricanes and wildfires of 2017 and 2018, said there was only so much the agency’s own people could do. “They’re like the sixth man coming off the bench in a basketball game, down by 20, and being told to win the game,” Mr. Long said. “We win and lose together.”

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