Rethinking Environmental Disaster Preparation During a Worldwide Health Crisis

As the peak of hurricane season nears, WSP USA has been helping public emergency agencies take unprecedented steps to ensure effective crisis response during a global pandemic.

Over the past three decades, WSP USA has provided multiple services to federal, state and local emergency agencies, including housing inspections, emergency logistics and supply procurement, administrative support and hazard mitigation planning, design and program management.

In 2020, the typical playbook and the experience that has influenced those best practices for disaster response has been flipped on its head.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. hard in early March, WSP has been working with many of its clients to re-evaluate disaster plans, locate emergency funding sources, pre-position contracts and assets, and line up vendors so that critical supplies and services that have become increasingly difficult to find due to the health crisis are at the ready if a big storm event or other disaster occurs while the pandemic rages on.

“In previous years, when a hurricane strikes, there are agencies and organizations in other areas and states that are willing and able to step up and offer their services, provide personnel and contribute supplies to assist the impacted areas,” said Tom Lewis, president of federal programs and logistics at WSP. “This year, everyone across the board has been hit by the pandemic, and that has created a limited availability of funds – not to mention concerns about spreading of and exposure to COVID-19. We are witnessing supply chains that are already stretched to the limit and each agency will be much more on its own this year.”

Now, more than ever, fortune favors the prepared.

“Hurricanes don’t stop for pandemics,” Lewis said. “Well-organized companies, emergency management agencies, departments of transportation and many others have been planning for the unexpected and have their ‘disaster tool box’ at the ready, though now they must look and see how it can be adapted in a different way.”

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©WSP USA

WSP USA provides FEMA with habitability housing inspecting services following natural disasters like hurricanes.

A Perfect Storm

WSP does extensive work supporting dozens of U.S. emergency management agencies, multiple military service branches and many other infrastructure clients in disaster preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation.

With the potential of a “perfect storm” approaching — one or more natural disasters striking during a global pandemic — WSP has been working with emergency managers to identify key assets and controls, leverage available tools and technologies, and establish continuity of operations strategies. The paramount objective: Let nothing stand in the way of an agency’s ability to make lifesaving and life-sustaining efforts its top priority when a crisis unfolds.

Of WSP’s 10,000-plus employees across the U.S., more than 600 are located in Florida and are prepared to assist the Florida Department of Emergency Management (FDEM). With its recent surge in COVID-19 cases, disaster planning in that state has become increasingly complex and WSP has deployed even more resources for FDEM, and similar conditions and equally challenging scenarios exist across the country.

To assist FDEM in preparing for a collision of crises, WSP has shared its expertise and advice in several key areas, including:

  • asset and supply warehousing, tracking, and management;
  • transportation, including modified evacuation plans and alternatives to the usual use of large buses and shuttles;
  • sheltering, including mass care done in a different way than usual to achieve appropriate social distancing;
  • communication, to ensure that messages are received quickly, particularly in vulnerable populations;
  • public works, to locate additional and safe shelter locations such as local schools, university campuses and underutilized hotels;
  • hazmat services, to provide disinfection and decontamination services on short notice for shelter facilities;
  • emergency food, ice, and water delivery for shelters and other public facilities; and
  • emergency power and flood control equipment, including portable generators, pumps, cables, hoses and fuel services.
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©WSP USA

Since 1995, WSP has supported FEMA as a nationwide housing inspections services contractor, inspecting homes damaged during presidentially declared emergencies or natural disasters.

Change of Plans

Even the best set plans from previous years required evaluation and reconfiguration to be practical during the COVID-19 pandemic. One such area requiring critical review and possible change is with the creation of temporary shelters in affected areas, which are usually created in large open areas like school gymnasiums, convention centers or sports arenas and stadiums.

“Factor in the COVID-19 dynamic and relying on the standard venues for shelter is neither a smart or practical solution,” Lewis said. “We are exploring new places where people can be spread out and safely distanced from one another.”

One way WSP is assisting the FDEM with its evacuation and relocation plans is through coordination with hotels to provide temporary and immediate housing at a reduced rate, particularly for the relocation of elderly Florida residents who may have limited or no resources for safely leaving the area.

In addition, the state of Florida is ordering more portable generators than ever before, because officials believe this will be a worse-than-average year for hurricanes.

“WSP is not only helping with the coordination of those purchases, but also with plans for storing the generators as far inland as possible so that they are easily accessible, but with minimal threat of being inaccessible in storm-hit areas,” Lewis said. “All of the generators in the world are of no use if they are damaged or can’t be reached.”

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©WSP USA

WSP works with FEMA to perform technical inspections of generator units, responding within 24 hours. WSP performs assessment, service, and repairs on gensets stored in FEMA warehouse facilities in Georgia, Texas and Maryland.

Seeking Guidance

With forecasters predicting a heavier-than-normal hurricane season, WSP has been committed to working with its clients up to, during, and in the immediate aftermath of a disaster event. For organizations still seeking guidance with emergency preparation, Lewis said WSP has the resources available to collaborate with them and set in motion what they need to do in order to react and respond to those needs quickly.

“We are fortunate to have the perspective to see what is already working for our clients, but we also see what isn’t going to work or may put them at greater risk,” he said. “So rather than learn through trial and error, our clients have benefitted from our institutional knowledge.”

While there are many federal funding opportunities available, it can be difficult to find or determine eligibility. While WSP has been able to help its clients locate those revenue sources, that is only the first part of the equation.

“And even when it is available, the process required can become quite confusing or burdensome for an agency that understandably has its attention focused on its urgent life-saving priorities,” Lewis said. “At the very least, it can be considerably time consuming and frustrating to learn the process and then follow through correctly.”

To ensure money is being used properly, FEMA has some strict processes in place that must be followed with precision. Failing to properly record and invoice expenses or deploy aid could result in delayed, canceled or even clawed-back reimbursement for agencies who are watching and need every penny.

“With our knowledge of these requirements, and with our ability to incorporate many of the best practices that have been successfully deployed around the world, WSP has been able to step in and take care of those responsibilities on our clients’ behalf,” Lewis said. “Many of these agencies would not be able to do all of that research on their own in a relatively short time span … and they don’t have to. We have that information already captured for them.”

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©WSP USA

Portable generators were mobilized to bring power back to hurricane-impacted areas in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017.

An Acute Awareness

One silver lining: The pandemic has made most emergency response agencies acutely aware of the need to pre-position contracts and assets and to take early and decisive action to prepare for potential disasters in order to minimize the negative impact the pandemic will have on a swift, life-saving response. And the infrastructure that is put in place this year will most likely become part of more comprehensive emergency preparedness efforts in the future.

“In 2020, everyone became focused on the need to be ultra-prepared, especially in situations where it is our responsibility to protect the health and safety of our citizens,” Lewis said. “WSP is committed to ensuring that everyone we are working with is informed and prepared for almost anything.”

[To subscribe to Insights, contact the editorial staff at insights@wsp.com.]

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©WSP USA

Following Hurricane Marie, which struck Puerto Rico in 2017, a team from WSP USA responded to bring power back to the region as quickly as possible.

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