COVID-19 hinders communities and organizations during and after natural disasters

Digital Originals

ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — From flooding to fires and hurricanes, natural disasters can occur during any time of the year. While people can prepare and evacuate for certain natural disasters, the coronavirus pandemic is adding extra stress to an already difficult situation.

“People know pretty much what to do when they’re supposed to evacuate in quote, unquote ‘normal times’. But with the pandemic, especially, there where a number of logistic concerns,” said Liesel Ritchie. “Some people, in fact, were concerned just about leaving and exposing themselves to the virus.”

The fear of COVID-19 caused some residents to not go out and get supplies. Others were worried about going to shelters due to virus exposure. Those running the shelters were concerned with maintaining social distancing and making sure they were able to help as many people as possible.

“There are challenges associated with deploying volunteers in an area that’s got a pandemic going on. There are folks that are really not comfortable being served by volunteers,” Ritchie explained. “And these social distancing activities are also really important to maintain — which, again, cuts down on the number of volunteers.”

Volunteers with the American Red Cross have had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic while helping others as well.

Needless to say, it has been a challenge at times.

“It’s been incredibly difficult because, again, we’re here to alleviate human suffering. So not only are we dealing with people that are facing a tragedy in their life or a disaster in their life, but they’re also in another disaster. They’re also scared of COVID-19,” said Jackie Grant, the Executive Director of the American Red Cross – South West Virginia Chapter.

Grant says the organization started looking at the COVID-19 pandemic back in March and began to plan how it would impact their operations.

“Our volunteer workforce, which is over 90-percent, went through trainings to make sure that they’re safe in keeping themselves and their clients safe. That involved temperatures taking, mask-wearing, social distancing — all the things if we were going to have a shelter or if we’re responding to a home fire or, for example, wildfires out in California. All the things that are happening, we still have to be there; we just have to be there differently.”

The organization has had to order more equipment to keep their volunteers safe. While the American Red Cross is always looking for volunteers, the need has doubled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“If you think about a shelter during a normal hurricane, we would space the beds out. Now we have to have the beds spaced out more than six feet apart, so we need more volunteers,” Grant explained. “Sometimes we don’t even want to have a shelter; we want to put people in a hotel. That means we have to have volunteers that are delivering food to the folks that are in a hotel for a non-congregate shelter.”

“In a number of ways, it has taxed local resources — including officials, including first responders, including the National Guard, and including local people who live there,” Ritchie said. “There’s only so much energy we all have on a given day or within a given time span, and people where already maxed out because of the pandemic and responding to the local virus needs. Adding this on top of it is going to stretch those already taxed resources.”

However, organizations and federal agencies are working to make the necessary changes to serve communities impacted by natural disasters as they deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think we just need to keep in mind that everyone is doing their best,” Ritchie said. “We, as local communities, can also come together in ways that we might not have thought of in the face of these disasters.”

For those who are seeking help, keep in mind that operations will look a little different from the past.

“Those kind of robust social networks that we have are operating differently now because of the pandemic. We don’t have an opportunity to have a lot of face-to-face interaction; we have to social distance. But there are other ways that communities can come together and rely on one another.”

Grants says the American Red Cross – South West Virginia Chapter will not be slowed down by the pandemic.

“You shouldn’t notice anything different from how the Red Cross is responding,” Grant said. “We’re going to be there, we’re just going to be there a little different. But we’re still going to provide the care and support that you need.”

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