When Natural Disasters Strike During COVID, Where Can People Safely Go?

As wildfires rage throughout the West, evacuees are challenged to find safe refuge amid the coronavirus pandemic.

When Natural Disasters Strike During COVID, Where Can People Safely Go?

In September, wildfires engulfed California, Oregon, and Washington.

Photo by Shutterstock

As if enduring the worst pandemic of the century weren’t enough—now hundreds of thousands of people in California, Oregon, and Washington need to figure out how to safely find shelter from the threat of wildfires while also remaining safe amid the risks posed by COVID-19.

“They come to the temporary evacuations points hoping to make sense of a mad-dash evacuation, sometimes with minimal belongings. They are afraid for their homes, their friends and their families, and yes, they are afraid of COVID,” Denise Everhart, division disaster executive for the American Red Cross—Pacific Division, said in a statement in late August about the California wildfire evacuees that the American Red Cross has been assisting.

As of September 11, wildfires had burned more than 3.1 million acres across California (an area larger than the state of Connecticut), according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). In Oregon, more than 900,000 acres had burned and more than 500,000 people had been ordered to evacuate. And in Washington, more than 600,000 acres had burned as of September 11.

The American Red Cross has helped thousands on the West Coast find refuge from the wildfires with emergency lodging that includes a mix of shelters and hotels. But the concern with shelters is that they bring together large groups of people, which can increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

“Whenever we have people who are in constant contact with one another that don’t normally live together, there’s definitely a risk of transmission of COVID,” Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase stated at a press briefing in late August.

For those who have no alternative, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers this guidance on how to protect yourself and others from the risks of COVID-19 while in a temporary shelter due to a natural disaster:

  • Practice social distancing. Stay at least six feet away from people outside of your household
  • Wash your hands often, cover coughs and sneezes, and wear masks as required
  • Help protect everyone in the shelter, especially those who are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, including older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions
  • Try to avoid touching high-touch surfaces—if you do touch them, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol immediately after
  • Keep your living area in the shelter clean and disinfected
  • If you feel sick when you arrive at the shelter or start to feel sick while sheltering, immediately inform the shelter staff
  • Make sure children age two and older wear masks, and that children wash their hands often and stay at least six feet away from anyone who is not from your household

Because of the pandemic, hotels and individual citizens can offer critical support

Airbnb’s Open Homes initiative allows people to open up their homes to those in need.

Airbnb’s Open Homes initiative allows people to open up their homes to those in need.

Courtesy of Airbnb

In light of the challenges the coronavirus pandemic adds to the already difficult circumstances for those fleeing natural disasters, the need for evacuees to shelter in hotels or in homes has been amplified.

In California’s Santa Cruz County, where the CZU August Lightning Complex fire has burned more than 86,000 acres, officials have compiled a list of available hotel rooms in the area, including whether pets are allowed and if the hotel is offering any kind of discount. The City of San Jose has also compiled a list of hotels that are offering discounts to evacuees. They include Aloft Santa Clara, AC Hotel Downtown San Jose, Doubletree by Hilton San Jose, Fairmont San Jose, Hayes Mansion, Hotel de Anza, San Jose Marriott, and the Westin San Jose, among several others.

Those who are in need of lodging can apply for assistance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The California wildfires and Hurricane Laura have been officially declared disasters by FEMA, which means that those directly impacted qualify for aid and can apply online if they need to rent a temporary space to live in due to the disaster and they don’t have insurance coverage for temporary housing, as well as for reimbursement of short-term hotel costs not covered by insurance.

Santa Cruz officials are also asking that those who are not in an evacuation zone to consider opening their home to others.

Access to temporary housing in the midst of a disaster is something that vacation rental platform Airbnb tries to facilitate with its Open Homes initiative, which seeks to connect those who need housing with those who are willing to offer it free of charge in times of crisis.

With the vast wildfires in the West, Airbnb needs more housing than is currently available. Those who are interested in opening up their homes to people who have been displaced by the fires can visit Airbnb’s wildfires assistance page to learn more about how they can help.

Airbnb is also offering travel vouchers to wildfire relief workers to cover the cost of accommodations.

This story originally appeared on August 26, 2020, and has been updated to include current information.

>> Next: What It’s Like to Be a Wildland Firefighter

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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