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Hurricane in a Pandemic? Info and Updates


Catherine Ragin Williams |
August 24, 2020

UPDATE: 8/24

As Tropical Storms Marco and Laura enter the Gulf of Mexico and approach landfall, stay tuned to JSC SOS for updates about center status and the center hurricane level. As of 12:42 p.m. on Aug. 24, 2020 the Center is at a Level 4 and has started general preparation in case there are impacts to the center. Center hurricane levels are used to coordinate the preparation of facilities at JSC at a high level in advance of a storm. Changing the levels is at the discretion of Center management.

    The levels are:

    • Level 5 - Readiness - At the beginning of Hurricane season we begin monitoring tropical weather 
    • Level 4 - Concern - If there is a storm that may impact JSC, we begin general preparation of the Center
    • Level 3- Preparation - When impacts to JSC become well defined, we start more specific preparations and plan for greater impacts
    • Level 2 - Center Closure and Rideout 
    • Level 1 - Impact and Recovery 

    ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

    It seemed as if the advent of hurricane season — this year, anyway — prompted slightly hysterical laughter from residents on the Gulf Coast. After all, while struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, what could be more “2020” than, say, a devastating hurricane on top of everything else? While we’ve been lucky (so far), what is in our control — if not the tropics, per se — is our level of preparedness. Now’s the time to take planning to the next level, because as survivors of Harvey who are also attempting invisibility in the face of a potentially deadly pathogen, all we can do is … what we can do.


    Roundup talked to both NASA Johnson Space Center’s Director of Center Operations Joel Walker and Linda Spuler, emergency manager, to get additional insight into how the center, and the rest of us, personally, should prepare for 2020’s hurricane season in the midst of coronavirus. Here’s what they had to say.

    Q: In the event of a hurricane in the Houston area, how does the center respond?

    Joel Walker: We have a Center Operations ride-out team that stays at the center if we close due to a hurricane. That team is responsible for overseeing the safe operation of our site-wide utility systems and monitoring of the storm’s impact. They transition to a different recovery team soon after the storm passes.

    Q: With COVID-19 and the telework posture, would the center respond differently to a hurricane this year?

    Joel Walker: One difference this year would be some level of preparedness that we normally ask each employee to do before shutdown. For instance, if in the past we asked you to cover your desktop computer with a plastic bag just in case a window blew out and water could damage it, this year we will not ask employees to come back on-site to do that low level of extra protection. We will be focusing on the most critical tasks and the most critical equipment — with mostly the essential personnel we already have working on-site. The low-level risk of some common equipment damage is offset by the additional risk of bringing large numbers of employees back on-site. This is a directorate-by-directorate analysis of critical systems.

    Q: How are essential operations that cannot be accomplished by telework impacted by severe storms?

    Joel Walker: We have a well-planned preparedness and shutdown plan that we have used in the past, and we practice it each year. That includes a complete shutdown and evacuation of even the ride-out team if a storm reaches the most severe levels. So, what we are able to accomplish through teleworking, and what we have to do as essential on-site work now, will not really be as impacted as you might think. The plan considers not being able to do essential work on-site.

    Q: If there are impacts to the center, how will employees be notified?

    Linda Spuler: Johnson uses the agency Emergency Notification System (ENS) to notify employees of emergencies. Employees should take the time to add or correct their contact information at id.nasa.gov to ensure they can receive messages to personal cell numbers and home email addresses. Be sure to click on the “Edit” button in the “Personal” section of id.nasa.gov to edit information (see the example below). Johnson also uses the externally accessible emergency management website, jscsos.com, to post center status and other information for employees.

    Q: What’s the best way employees can personally prepare for hurricane season?

    Linda Spuler: Make a plan. Take time now to decide what you will do if a storm threatens our area. Keep in mind that the pandemic may change availability in hotels and shelters, and there may be COVID-19 protocols and guidelines you will have to follow if you evacuate to a hotel or a shelter. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has guidelines on how to keep yourself safe in a shelter.

    Q: Are there items that we should have on hand, at home, in the event that we must prepare quickly for a hurricane?

    Linda Spuler: Sufficient water and non-perishable food items are a must. Plan for a gallon of water per person (and each pet!) per day. Most guidance says to prepare for at least 72 hours without power, so make sure you have plenty of batteries. You should keep a supply stock handy — even if you plan to evacuate. Hand sanitizer, soap, and masks are things you should keep on hand whether you stay or go, but consider that you may be without running water if a storm hits our area. Storms are unpredictable, and you may find yourself trapped at home. Keep important documents like birth certificates, passports, legal paperwork, and insurance policies handy, and remember to take them with you if you evacuate.  

    Q: What should be included in a personal hurricane plan?

    Linda Spuler: You can find out more about creating your own emergency plan under the “Make a Plan” menu item at https://www.ready.gov/hurricanes. You can find suggestions about what to include in your kit here. There is also quite a bit of information on the internet about building an emergency kit in a five-gallon bucket, which would be a handy way to prepare a “go kit” for your car if you plan to evacuate; http://fivegallonideas.com/emergency-kit/ offers some good ideas.

    Keep in mind that COVID-19 may make it harder to get supplies, and it may influence your decision to evacuate. There are many factors for you to consider. For example, you may think it is safer to stay home, but have you considered that you may lose running water at your house? The CDC has put together information on how the pandemic may impact your plan.

    Q: What is the best route to have a discussion if an employee feels unsafe driving as a result of a storm?

    Joel Walker: We do not direct employees on what they should do personally for each storm. We will provide the latest information we receive, and our jscsos.com site has links to lots of other agency and community resources for evacuation routes and immediate, current storm conditions. Each employee should have a plan on what they will personally do for their family in case of a storm. Since an individual response is dependent on personal situations, and storm conditions can change rapidly, we encourage employees to follow guidance by local municipalities and monitor news and other information resources when making their own personal decisions.

    So, in a nutshell …

    People > property. This year, the center will not ask employees to come back in to protect equipment, per the normal standard, to avoid additional exposure to COVID-19. Plan, instead, what you will do for your family and home in the event of a storm.

    The ball is in your court. Your level of anxiety, from the time a storm is named in the Gulf of Mexico, is proportionally related to how much you did in advance to prepare for it. The good news, though, is that it’s all in your power: from updating your info at id.nasa.gov to coming up with a plan for your family to extra contingencies related to evacuations … Take the initiative and suffer less anxiety, because we could all use a little less of that right now.


    On Aug. 25, 2017, NASA astronaut Jack Fischer photographed Hurricane Harvey from the cupola module aboard the International Space Station as it intensified on its way toward the Texas coast. The Expedition 52 crew on the station has been tracking this storm for the past two days and capturing Earth-observation photographs and videos from their vantage point in low-Earth orbit. Credits: NASA