Pandemic and flooding? Science group predicts one-two punch

Rural areas could be particularly hard hit at a time when emergency and medical services are in short supply

Floodwater surrounds a farm on March 22, 2019 near Craig, Missouri. UCS researchers found rural parts of the country, which tend to have limited health care facilities, are vulnerable to both the coronavirus and flooding this spring. 

 (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Floodwater surrounds a farm on March 22, 2019 near Craig, Missouri. UCS researchers found rural parts of the country, which tend to have limited health care facilities, are vulnerable to both the coronavirus and flooding this spring.  (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Posted March 25, 2020 at 7:10pm

The sweeping coronavirus pandemic and extreme flooding are on track to collide this spring, a one-two combination that will hit rural areas particularly hard at a time when emergency and medical services are in short supply, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group, warned Wednesday.

UCS researchers found rural parts of the country, which tend to have limited health care facilities, are vulnerable to both the virus and flooding. 

“That’s where we see that the rural counties will be really heavily burdened,” Kristina Dahl, senior climate scientist at UCS, said in an interview. 

As Americans and public officials grapple with the medical and economic fallout from the coronavirus, first responders on the front lines are scrambling for supplies, a situation extreme flooding and hurricanes are likely to exacerbate.

The UCS analysis singled out eastern parts of South Dakota and Iowa, which floods devastated last year, as well as regions of Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia and counties adjacent to the Mississippi River, as vulnerable to both the virus and floods.

“Both regions are at risk of experiencing major flooding in the months ahead, and both include a number of counties that are presently projected to have 25 percent or more of the population infected by the coronavirus in the same timeframe,” the authors wrote of eastern parts of South Dakota and Iowa.

Other major cities and towns exposed to the pair of threats include: Atlanta; Baton Rouge, La.; Little Rock, Ark.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Kansas City, the authors said. “In these places, the sheer number of infected people who may need to evacuate their homes could severely burden health care and emergency evacuation facilities.”

Dahl and her colleagues cross-referenced coronavirus infection data, last updated March 13, from Columbia University modelers with flood data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths in the U.S. have skyrocketed since then, as government and health officials have ramped up their efforts to clamp down on the spread.

In its 2020 forecast, NOAA warned of “widespread” flooding, including “major to moderate” flooding in 23 states, putting 128 million people at risk. The agency predicted this season would be less severe than 2019, when flooding caused about $11 billion in damage and. Still, NOAA said much of the South, the Midwest and northern Plains states were vulnerable this season.

Areas swamped last year are still recovering, Dahl said. “From what we saw last year, there are towns that have struggled to recover for months.”

“People’s livelihoods were decimated,” she said. “And that was without the background of a deadly virus circulating in those communities.”

Another concern: Emergency shelters are not set up with infectious diseases in mind, and noncoronavirus disasters could force people into close quarters, like Red Cross or Federal Emergency Management Agency tents, where the pathogen could more easily spread.

“These types of facilities generally aren’t designed to keep people as a distance with COVID-19 in mind,” Dahl said.

The Red Cross updated its coronavirus guidelines this month, saying it would enforce social distancing rules to place people at least 6 feet apart when possible.