When disaster strikes, state emergency officials prepare for the worst-case scenarios. But most plans don’t include a hurricane season coinciding with a ravaging pandemic that drains resources and shows no signs of slowing down.
As hurricane season officially starts Monday, Florida and other states along the Atlantic coast are faced with the daunting reality, and are rewriting nearly every aspect of their storm preparedness.
“The biggest challenge that we’re facing is that when the evacuation order comes, that the people won’t leave,” said Frank Rollason, director of Emergency Management at Miami-Dade County. “That they’ll think they’re better off taking their chances at home than they are in groups of people who may be Covid positive. If they are ordered to evacuate they are safer in an evacuation center than in their home in an evacuation zone. “
Evacuations will be more complicated
By all indications, it’ll be a busy hurricane season. Two tropical storms – Arthur and Bertha – have already checked in this month even before the season officially started.
Under normal circumstances, the decision to evacuate as a storm looms is hard enough. Emergency officials have to weigh the risks of letting people stay home versus urging hordes of them to get on the road to head to a shelter.
This year, officials are aware coronavirus is a major concern, and have added more shelters, extra space and other measures to reassure evacuees.
“Those going to shelters will get their temperatures taken and will have to answer questions on whether they’ve had contact with anyone who has coronavirus or whether they’ve had symptoms,” Rollason said.
At shelters, officials will ensure people are spread out. Some will be housed in complexes such as schools or hotels with low occupancy. The county has made arrangements with schools to have classes deep-cleaned and furniture removed to provide more room, he said.
“Families that have been exposed to Covid-19 will be separated from others and put in a classroom as a unit,” Rollason said.
Hundreds of hotels will house evacuees
The state has also signed up 200 hotels to give counties options for vulnerable people such as seniors, those who have underlying conditions or people who may have coronavirus, said Jared Moskowitz, the Florida director of Emergency Management.
“I need people to have the confidence that in the event they live in an evacuation zone and they’re under mandatory evacuation. And there’s a threat of a hurricane … they have the confidence to leave and get out of harm’s way. We can mitigate the effects of Covid-19. We cannot mitigate the effects of a hurricane,” he said.
For those who will shelter in places other than hotels, cots will be spaced farther apart and hand sanitizing stations placed throughout. Meals will be taken to families instead of self-service, and there will be screenings twice a day for symptoms, said Trevor Riggen, senior vice president for disaster cycle services at the American Red Cross.
Florida ordered nursing homes and assisted living facilities to install generators after a dozen people died when Hurricane Irma knocked out power at a nursing home in 2017. Nursing homes in areas at risk of flooding will work with the state to move residents to facilities out of the storm’s path, where social distancing will also be considered, officials said.
Getting supplies is also a concern
Coronavirus has sapped resources, leaving small towns fighting with bigger cities for coveted personal protective equipment. The items are not just for hospitals but also for volunteers.
“Are they going to show up if there isn’t enough PPE for everybody? We can’t really depend on folks to bring their own,” said Colin Wellenkamp, the executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative.
Personal protective equipment is also crucial to ensure that the virus does not spread in areas already at risk during hurricane season.
In Florida, the Emergency Management director said they created a special stockpile for hurricane season by buying up PPE and putting it in reserve in a warehouse. The goal is to make sure there are 10 million masks on hand during hurricane season, Moskowitz said.
Federal officials have urged people to make their own preparations as well. Those who will evacuate should carry items such as hand sanitizer, cleaning materials and face coverings.
“Make sure everyone in your household knows and understands your hurricane plan,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency says. “Have enough food, water, and other supplies for every member of your family to last at least 72 hours. Consider what unique needs your family might have, such as supplies for pets or seniors and prescription medications.”
Shortage of volunteers expected this year
The Red Cross will provide a bulk of help at shelters, officials say. More than 90% of the Red Cross’ workforce is volunteer, and the organization has been conducting weekly surveys to gauge their willingness, Riggen said last month.
The availability and safety of volunteers is especially a concern in small towns and cities that dot the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
For example, Clarksville, Missouri, one of those vulnerable cities on the Mississippi River, has around 500 residents. And one of its main streets is just feet from the river.
With a permanent flood barrier out of financial reach, Clarksville officials work with FEMA, state and local officials along with volunteers from all over the country to defend against floods by building an eight-foot rock wall topped with sand bags.
But this year, it’s facing a volunteer shortage due to coronavirus. And even if they had enough, building a wall while keeping people six feet apart to avoid the spread of coronavirus is not realistic.
With a shortage of volunteers, local officials should explore other options beyond bringing people in from the outside to provide relief, said Craig Fugate, a former FEMA director who oversaw the response to large disasters like Superstorm Sandy.
With mass job losses because of the coronavirus, officials should look into paying residents in affected areas to help with the response, he said.
“Moving a lot of volunteers may not be a smart idea, so I think communities need to look to their current furloughed employees as their emergency workforce,” Fugate said. “There’s a whole lot of people that just lost their jobs, and you can put them to work.”
CNN’s Drew Kann, Leyla Santiago and Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report