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Disasters aren’t waiting for the pandemic to end. Already this spring, COVID-19 complicated efforts to recover from tornadoes across the Southeast. And it’s likely to remain squarely on the radar as hurricanes, floods, fires, and other extreme events unfold during the rest of 2020.

Those conditions set the stage for a double whammy: In some U.S. communities, residents may soon contend with a disaster that occurs on top of a major disease outbreak. As a result, after spending months limiting their social contacts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, many Americans may need to evacuate to community shelters, hotels, or the homes of friends or relatives.

Take the following steps to help prepare yourself and loved ones to handle two emergencies at once.

Step 1: Update your emergency plan to cover COVID-19 concerns

First, if you haven’t already prepared your emergency plan, it’s time to make one.

Also see: How to make an evacuation plan

Review your plan to identify points that may need updating in light of the pandemic. Take some time to read CDC information on the novel coronavirus, which includes up-to-date guidance and information on how to check yourself for symptoms.

Discuss with other members of your household how COVID-19 concerns might affect your actions during a major flood, fire or other disaster – particularly as it pertains to where you’ll seek refuge.

For example, if your typical plan is to evacuate to a relative or friend’s home, talk with them in advance about whether they are still comfortable with this approach. Especially if your friend or family member is a senior or otherwise immune-compromised, you may need to contact others about seeking shelter elsewhere. If your plan is to shelter in a hotel, take a moment to check on whether the hotel’s cleaning and mask policies have been updated in light of the pandemic.

Whether your plan is to head to a hotel or relation’s home, plan to stay safe during your shelter period by bringing – and using – your own cloth face coverings and sanitizing supplies.

Step 2: Understand and prepare for your shelter’s safety requirements

It’s difficult to maintain social distancing in a crowded shelter, so many communities are working to address COVID-19 concerns by reducing crowds to the extent possible. Many shelters, for example, will need to space beds farther apart, reducing capacity.

As a result, some emergency managers are identifying additional sites that can be used during an evacuation. Those sites may even include hotel rooms, depending on local plans. But in other places, some residents might be advised to shelter in place rather than evacuate if possible.

Check with your local emergency planning officials to find out if there have been changes to community shelter recommendations. The Red Cross also lists community shelters once opened, or you can visit FEMA’s Disaster Recovery Center Locator to find a center near you.

During a severe weather event, follow guidance from your local officials. If it leads you to a community shelter, be ready to meet CDC guidelines for going to a public shelter during the pandemic. Its guidance includes recommendations that you:

  • Bring two cloth face coverings for everyone in your family over two (unless they are medically unable to wear them), and hand sanitizer or soap.
  • While in the shelter, maintain at least six feet of distance from those outside your immediate family.
  • Wash your hands often, cover when you cough or sneeze, and avoid touching high-touch surfaces or sharing food and drink.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently-touched items like cell phones and children’s toys.
  • Tell shelter staff immediately if you or a family member are feeling sick.

Many of these same rules apply to sheltering in a private home or hotel. The basic rule of thumb: Practice social distancing, wear a cloth face covering, and sanitize frequently.

Step 3: Revisit your emergency supply kit

The CDC recommends that you update your emergency supply kit with items that will help reduce the chances of disease spread in the event that you need to leave your home.

So in addition to go-bag basics like flashlight, water and medications, make sure to pack disinfectant supplies such as hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes and soap, plus cloth face coverings.

The bottom line: Follow local guidance

Local officials will be the best-equipped to provide real-time guidance in the event of disaster. But by preparing yourself now for the prospect of evacuating during a pandemic, you can help safeguard not only your own health, but the health of those around you who need shelter, too.

For more information, visit:’s emergency planning page and the CDC’s coronavirus resource center.

Daisy Simmons is a freelance writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience in research-driven storytelling. In addition to contributing to Yale Climate Connections since early 2016, she also...