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When It’s One Disaster on Top of Another

While the pandemic continues to rage, hurricane season is looming. Emergency managers need to be ready not only for threats to life and property but also for new and complex financial challenges.

For state and local government's emergency managers, it has all the makings of the perfect storm: Just as they continue to face unprecedented challenges in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, hurricane season has begun. And the challenges will be fiscal as well as to life and property: Stimulus measures, while providing a badly needed influx of funds from multiple federal sources, have formed an uncertain regulatory environment and created increased risk of fraud, waste and abuse.

The resulting situation requires emergency managers to carefully assess their organizations' preparedness, leverage their strengths and address any weaknesses. Developing plans now, or improving upon existing plans, will position organizations for success in the coming months. Here are five ways to start:

Assemble a strong team: Organizations should pre-position themselves by assembling a staff with the right mix of skill sets and experience to react with expert judgment during and after a hurricane. Critical team members should include not only emergency managers but also recovery managers, finance managers and legal counsel. For an effective recovery from hurricanes during COVID-19, it will become crucial for organizations to have a disaster finance team in place that is able to achieve recovery goals through portfolio management.

Adopt a risk-based approach: Jurisdictions and their emergency management organizations should honestly assess their exposure to flooding and wind damage caused by hurricanes, and how their ability to respond to a disaster is changed during the pandemic. Understanding potential risks to infrastructure and assets allows emergency managers to focus their efforts on the greatest-impact and most-likely risks. Understanding risk also allows state and local governments to take advantage of hazard mitigation funding opportunities offered by the federal government. One useful project management technique is to create, maintain and update a "risk register," which lists identified risks and assigns them to owners within the organization.

Mitigate COVID-19 risks for both staff and evacuees: Keeping teams safe during the COVID-19 crisis means taking precautions to stop the spread during in-person meetings. Every disaster management plan should be re-evaluated to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus among teams by reducing in-person meetings as much as possible and by ensuring that personal protective equipment is available to, and used by, recovery managers.

The way evacuations are handled must be carefully considered, as congregating evacuees during the COVID-19 crisis in the traditional manner is no longer an option. According to a recent AAA survey, 42 percent of Floridians are fearful of evacuation or entering shelters during COVID-19 spikes. Organizations that regularly respond to hurricanes should run exercises under scenarios where public gatherings are restricted and safeguarded by use of appropriate PPE.

In financial management, remember that documentation rules the day: While rarely the first concern during a disaster, sound financial management principles provide the most effective path to gaining and effectively using funding. One of the foremost principles is proper documentation of costs incurred. The need for financial management is amplified during the COVID-19 crisis to demonstrate how fluid stimulus grant funding is applied. By law, the Federal Emergency Management Agency cannot duplicate funding that flows from other federal sources, so it is up to recipients and sub-recipients to show that their claimed costs have not been funded elsewhere.

Anticipate your actions, and plan on accounting for them: If a hurricane strikes while your organization's COVID-19 response is underway, will responders know how to code their time to allocate costs properly? Will purchasers know to assign procurements to the COVID-19 cost center and not the hurricane cost center, or vice versa? Recipients and sub-recipients can anticipate these challenges by setting up the appropriate financial infrastructure and then training their staff to use it.

Entities not often affected by hurricanes may not anticipate this vital facet to a successful strategy. The result can be missed reimbursement opportunities or extensive requirements for staff labor hours to manually assign costs after the fact. Emergency managers who can foresee the need for distinct allocations of costs can set their organizations up for success and make sure that accounting for response and recovery is done correctly the first time.

Effective emergency management leaders act with urgency, not just during a life- and property-threatening event but also while preparing for one. While the long hard work of recovering from a hurricane or other natural disaster is made more complicated and dangerous by COVID-19, smart planning can reduce organizational risk and better position emergency managers for the complex challenges of a multi-pronged crisis.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

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