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Cyclones in the time of COVID-19

Source(s):  United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - Geneva (UNOCHA Geneva)

The Eastern Pacific cyclone season began on 15 May, and on 1 June its Atlantic counterpart kicked off what could be a long six months of hurricane activity in the Americas and the Caribbean.

Predictions are stark: there is a 60 per cent probability of an above-normal season in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center. This means we are potentially facing three to six major hurricanes. And things are already moving. The first named storm of the season, Tropical Storm Arthur, occurred in early May even before the official season began. The first hurricane of the season, Hanna, battered the southern Texan coast and northern Mexico at the end of July, bringing torrential downpours while Hurricane Douglas is threatening Hawaii with high winds and flooding.

The Eastern Pacific cyclone season began on 15 May, and on 1 June its Atlantic counterpart kicked off what could be a long six months of hurricane activity in the Americas and the Caribbean.

Predictions are stark: there is a 60 per cent probability of an above-normal season in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center. This means we are potentially facing three to six major hurricanes. And things are already moving. The first named storm of the season, Tropical Storm Arthur, occurred in early May even before the official season began. The first hurricane of the season, Hanna, battered the southern Texan coast and northern Mexico at the end of July, bringing torrential downpours while Hurricane Douglas is threatening Hawaii with high winds and flooding.

Preparing for hurricanes – or typhoons or cyclones as they’re known in the Asia-Pacific region – is a complex task that requires planetary weather-modelling systems; deep knowledge of local ecosystem dynamics; multilayer coordination within and between Governments, the private sector, civil society, and national and international humanitarian and disaster response partners; and, most critical of all, full engagement with the communities at risk. This is a complicated and vital task, as it means supporting and equipping Governments and their emergency response agencies to best prepare and protect at-risk communities.

All of this doesn’t just happen – it takes planning, practice, and a rigorous shared commitment to improvement and evolution. Every year, drills take place to simulate a range of disaster scenarios, including hair-raising worst-case versions, bringing together all the above-mentioned stakeholders to rehearse everything from alert and emergency contact trees to evacuation plans, from national decision-making processes to what is the most effective mechanism for providing international support.

This year, the COVID-19 global pandemic adds unforeseen complexity to preparedness efforts and serious challenges to how we respond to sudden-onset disasters, such as hurricanes. In this regard, collaboration and coordination are key. Just as medical and research communities fighting COVID-19 around the world have been strengthening their efforts by collaboration, cooperation and information sharing, disaster first-responders are working together across continents and regions to share lessons and be best placed to help people in need. Government agencies, national disaster management organizations, private sector networks and aid agencies in Latin America and the Caribbean are integrating lessons learned from counterparts in Asia and the Pacific who have faced an onslaught of storms since April: Super Cyclone Amphan in eastern India and Bangladesh; Tropical Cyclone Harold in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga; and Typhoon Vongfong in the Philippines.

Reduced access, remote support

Movement restrictions are a cornerstone of widespread COVID-19 containment measures. City, state and nationwide lockdowns have been imposed in many parts of the world, and quarantine measures have been enforced in efforts to halt or slow the spread of the virus. In this new reality, external disaster-response workers might not be granted access to a disaster-affected area. Moreover, affected communities may have higher levels of concern about external aid workers potentially spreading the virus. This points to the need for more remote support where feasible and leveraging the power and availability of technology enables large parts of significant first-order tasks to be done remotely. A critical first step in disaster response is conducting a needs assessment: what has happened, who is affected, where are they, what do they need. This information and data about affected communities can be collected through remote assessments. For example, first responders in the Philippines surveyed needs by using simplified forms shared through mobile devices. As COVID-19 prevented the deployment of assessment experts from Manila, data was compiled locally and sent back to Manila for analysis. Thus, mapping needs, devising a response plan, and preparing situation reports and funding appeals can be done remotely in a timely manner.

Remote support is most effective when paired with the pre-positioning of relief items and scaled-up collaboration with local organizations to distribute them. Predicting a cyclone’s path is an imperfect science that climate change is making ever less predictable, but the regions and communities historically more at risk are well mapped. Equally, aid organizations have an accurate grasp of the type of relief most likely required after the passage of a cyclone. Modelling of wind and storm surge coupled with knowledge of local markets adds precision when designing tailored emergency kits. For example, the Joint Analysis of Disaster Exposure used by OCHA, the WFP and the Pacific Disaster Center brings together disaster-impact modelling and mapping of pre-existing community vulnerability to estimate the number of affected people and those most likely in need of assistance and protection. Critical stocks can be pre-positioned safely near shelters, accompanied with pre-arranged distribution protocols. Equally, when markets remain functional post disaster, using cash transfers as a modality for assistance delivery through pre-established mechanisms and tested technology channels has proven effective. Experience in Bangladesh in the lead-up to Cyclone Amphan and in Fiji following Tropical Cyclone Harold demonstrated the utility of the cash modality in this regard, in addition to its relative speed and lower transaction cost.

Act before they hit

Anticipatory action is an innovative approach that is gaining momentum in humanitarian response. Organizations use data and predictive analytics to make forecasts of crises and their likely impacts - and take action – before they hit. On 4 July, forecasting suggested a 71 percent probability of high flooding in five highly vulnerable districts along Jamuna River in Bangladesh. This triggered the release of funding ahead of the activation of pre-agreed humanitarian activities by WFP, FAO and UNFPA. OCHA released $5 million through the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to help communities in Bangladesh blighted by climate-related weather events to prepare and protect themselves from the next major monsoon flooding.

This pilot in Bangladesh is the latest example of the application of anticipatory humanitarian action. Developments in data and predictive analytics make it possible to anticipate when disaster is about to strike and take action in advance. This approach offers a better, swifter, cheaper and more dignified solution to humanitarian needs.

Natural partners, local trust

The drive for the global humanitarian sector to be more inclusive is anchored in expanding the role of local aid organizations and private sector networks, recognizing that these partners have a deep understanding of context and culture, long-standing relationships with affected communities, and a strong capacity to leverage local networks towards effective and timely collaboration. Their roots in communities foster trust and acceptance. Their granular understanding of the social fabric can allow more effective targeting of assistance to the most vulnerable. Moreover, these partners are less likely to be constrained by movement restrictions during COVID-19 lockdowns, as they are often deemed essential at the local level. For example, when Tropical Cyclone Harold battered the remote areas of Vanuatu and they became cut off from the rest of the country (which itself is largely cut off from the world), community-based organizations and the private sector proved essential in responding to the needs of affected communities.

Business connections

Amid pandemic-related disruptions, local partners are the common denominator of humanitarian preparedness and response. Could the same also be said of the myriad small- and medium-sized business enterprises in a community? The answer is a resounding yes. They are part of the local community and often are also first responders, providing jobs and supplies. Their logistical capabilities are crucial to move personnel and goods, and they can make a real difference when connected to one another and plugged into a coordinated network with links to other key stakeholders, such as authorities and aid agencies. One example is the Connecting Business initiative (CBi), which was launched at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 and is jointly supported by OCHA and UNDP. CBi increases the resilience of businesses and communities while integrating private sector networks into disaster management mechanisms, and it connects the private sector with national, regional and international humanitarian coordination structures. Last year, CBi networks responded to 31 emergencies such as the response to Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas.

The Vanuatu CBi local network (VBRC) provided a coordination mechanism for the private sector to engage with the Government and partners to address the double emergencies of COVID-19 and Tropical Cyclone Harold. They activated preparedness measures, including the telecommunications teams to reconnect the islands after the cyclone, as well as shipping and logistics for relief and recovery efforts. Working with private sector and civil-society partners, VBRC assisted in supplying over 1,000 remote coastal households with 35 tons of food and other relief items over an eight-week period.

Learn. Train. Repeat.

All of this requires promoting predictability amid the prevailing uncertainties unleashed by a natural disaster and then amplified by the pandemic. Localization and targeted training of communities are key to successfully preparing for and responding to climate-related disasters in this new paradigm. Training programmes must refocus to include the impact of COVID-19 and the associated containment measures as well as lessons learned. Building the capacity of local aid groups must be accelerated – from conducting virtual needs assessments to mastering global processes to accessing funding and resources, and from contingency planning to delivering assistance in a safe manner. These steps will not only build stronger partners before and during a disaster response, but, critically, they will help bolster community resilience to bounce back quicker in the aftermath. But coordination of these efforts remains essential. Simply throwing “more” at an issue or at essential partners does not automatically achieve better results. Global aid agencies and disaster management organizations must coordinate their offerings to avoid overwhelming local partners, and they must prioritize a tailored approach to responding to disasters ranging from immediate life-saving to longer-term reconstruction and recovery. For instance, the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group, with a membership of over 100 countries, is strengthening community preparedness through its First Responder Programme. It also enhances regional coordination and works closely with WHO Emergency Medical Teams to share experiences and approaches.

These measures to adapt disaster preparedness and response (such as for the upcoming hurricanes) to the COVID-19 context are not new. But as with many other aspects of the life-upending pandemic and the wanton disruption it’s causing worldwide, we are witnessing an acceleration of the pace of change. As aid organizations continue exploring ways to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on their current and future operations, they have an opportunity to fully embrace and implement changes that will improve the effectiveness, transparency and inclusiveness of their life-saving endeavours. Disaster-affected communities deserve nothing less.



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  • Publication date 24 Jul 2020

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