Ashley Morris

May 24, 2020

7 min read

#KeepPrepSimple: Rebranding Hurricane Preparedness During COVID-19

Note: This is the first entry of my new blog series titled “Synoptic Socials.” The ultimate goal of Synoptic Socials is to discuss how we can better convert words into public action through effective public information in emergency management and public safety. Words translate into action much more frequently if we use the best practices discovered both in social science research and previous incidents. Public information topics include the use of crisis communications in public information and warning through warning system platforms and agency social media accounts. I will also be covering social listening and the application of virtual operations support teams to enhance emergency management operations. Lastly, the concept of outreach communication and programming will also be discussed. I can’t wait to share how we can strive to communicate more effectively to inspire preparedness and safety among those we serve!

#KeepPrepSimple: The Need to Re-brand Hurricane Preparedness in 2020

2020 is nearly halfway over, and many of us in emergency management have been actively involved in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic for the past few months. So before we get started, be sure to pat yourself on the back. You have earned some self-celebration for the hand work and dedication you have shown while handling such an long term incident.

But as we all know, the four category emergency management cycle does not stop. Preparedness does not stop. This has been demonstrated as many emergency management professionals have been active in modifying preparedness and planning measures for other spring and summer hazards. We have been preparing to take on tornado and hurricane incidents with the added complexity of COVID-19. Many agencies have created sheltering plans and recovery plans that take COVID-19 protective measures into account. While this does add a complicated dynamic to future response, professionals have done a great job of leaning forward all while continuing to manage another incident.

If emergency managers need to prepare for a reality that has both a hurricane and a pandemic in the same sentence, then so do residents and community members. If government plans and response are modified, then we are sure to see the same need for modification of personal family plans and household preparedness. What exactly does this look like? It will be unique to each household. For households that have members who are highly vulnerable to COVID-19, they may need to find an isolated sheltering option away from others or with close family. Some may do a personal threat assessment and determine that they need to shelter-in-place rather than being cautious and evacuating. For those who are not considered to be high risk for COVID-19, they may be able to participate in modified public sheltering or could take refuge with friends away from the disaster zone. Ultimately, people will make the decision based on threat perception and past experiences. This will be a public information challenge because we want residents to perceive the biggest threat to their lives correctly. However, that is a topic for another blog post.

We have continued to push preparedness campaigns virtually on social media platforms with graphics and videos. NOAA’s National Hurricane Preparedness Week was a few weeks ago in early May, and it appeared to be tough to get the message out as loud as normal due to the pandemic messaging that has been ongoing. The campaign topics were the typical hurricane topics that we cover every year: determine your risk, develop a plan, assemble supplies, check/purchase insurance, strengthen your home, and help your neighbor. However, a good question to ask is how well are these topics received by the public today during COVID.

While there was a small addition of COVID actions adopted to this preparedness campaign (bring a mask and hand sanitizer when you evacuate), it mostly was a very similar campaign to what we would have seen if COVID-19 was not an issue this year. That being said, people’s lives and personal situations have very much changed. The pandemic has massively disrupted people’s situations, routines, and livelihoods to a point where many are living day-to-day and attempting to cope with uncertainty. This could change the mindset of how people will respond to a call to action to prepare (some positively and some negatively). While some will use the stress of the pandemic to take control and enhance future preparedness, others may feel as if they have too much on their plate and not feel capable. While researching general public response to the hurricane prep campaign, I stumbled upon the two tweets below:

Tweet that says “Nj OEMjust let me know I should be writing up my hurricane preparedness document. GTFO”

While these are only two responses and do not necessarily reflect the general public’s thought process with certainty, I found it interesting that I found multiple people thinking along the same lines. I would love to read some social science research on the human response to multiple hazards. I am hoping to do some research to see what exists and if I find something, I will share it in another post.

Tweet that says “My city has started hurricane preparedness social messaging and I have yelled at them every time. NOT NOW.”

That being said, we do need to consider the potential that preparedness and the typical preparedness calls to action could be met with a feeling of overwhelm and result in no action. It may be a great idea to consider ways to simplify preparedness during COVID.

Another issue is the fact that COVID-19 has added a layer of financial insecurity widely among Americans in all states. Not only do we have a group of residents who may have lost their jobs and are seeking aid and unemployment, but we also have groups of people who are handling okay now but question how much longer their financial situation will last. This situation means that those who may have had a few extra dollars in the past have none at all, and those who might have been prepared with a rainy day savings may be hesitant to spend any of it on anything but essentials until the uncertainty lifts.

Despite the financial strains impacts though, there were many posts and pushes to purchase supplies and flood insurance despite this large issue. While we all know how important proper coverage is to family recovery, people may see these calls to action to spend money during hard financial times and scoff at them. There is a bit of irony for an agency account to post about the need for food bank donations and aid packages for a large amount of residents, and then call out to the same audience to go out and buy more supplies and insurance for another incident that hasn’t happened yet. It could severely limit resident preparedness depending on their attitude.

It’s hurricane prep week. You have probably stocked up on COVID supplies but also stock up on hurricane needs.

Ultimately, we need a new “brand” of preparedness while Americans nationwide navigate this pandemic. To navigate the potential issues of overwhelm as well as financial insecurity, it may be a great idea to tell residents to start with the smallest, easiest, and most cost-friendly options (preferably free!). Preparedness is a spectrum. No one is ever 100% prepared all at once and it often takes multiple days, weeks, months, or even years to get close to that top tier of preparedness. We need to echo the fact that every small preparedness step matters and counts! A great example of a campaign that does this is Do1Thing (https://do1thing.com/).

There are a few ways that we can try to keep prep simple this year. Instead of pushing for large projects that involve purchasing supplies or construction materials, perhaps start with giving residents a common list of emergency supplies that they already likely have in their home. We can explain to them that they can gather these supplies and create a kit without needing to go to the store for everything. Starting a kit this way is simple, easy, and free and may build confidence in the idea that preparedness isn’t too challenging.

Instead of costly house upgrades (which I love to see if people are able to do them!), perhaps teach on the simple mitigation tasks that they can do immediately! One of my favorites for wildfire mitigation is simply picking up dead leaves and cleaning dead vegetation off of roofs and gutters. For hurricanes? Why not clean out your gutters for good drainage and tie down (or bring inside) any large items that could blow away? For insurance preparedness? Calling on them to take photos of personal belongings and having them insert their agent’s phone number in their phone.

Some other great topics that avoid common COVID stressors are signing up for alerts and warnings (local notification systems) and setting up neighborhood pages on social media to help them “meet their neighbor” (like on Nextdoor or Facebook). This one is great because it not only allows them to continue social distancing, but it also opens up the opportunity to start a platform for residents to pass on official information from you later!

Winding this down, we all know that preparedness is important and we all know that all of the topics we typically cover are essential. However, we must modify our methods to inspire action. Once the preparedness ball is rolling through simple preparedness actions in our communities, then we can continue to slowly push for the larger calls to action involving more time, money, and resources. During COVID, we want to capitalize on disaster preparedness and see it continue to improve despite pandemic-induced family struggles.

I will be pushing a hurricane preparedness campaign for my agency this week that is my first attempt of trying this concept of #KeepPrepSimple. I will follow up with another post explaining the campaign and maybe some pros and cons later next week. What do you think? Can we change how we speak preparedness? Are there better ways? Let’s start a discussion!