Along the Coast: Virus makes hurricane shelter planning even more vital

By Rich Pollack

Should a hurricane threaten this year, residents could have to choose between leaving their homes to avoid water and wind or remaining home to avoid contracting a deadly and highly contagious virus.


The decision, emergency managers say, is an easy one.


“Don’t not evacuate because of the coronavirus,” says Bill Johnson, director of Palm Beach County’s Emergency Management division.


Throughout Palm Beach County, emergency managers and law enforcement officials are brainstorming ideas on how to ensure residents stay safe should a hurricane threaten while the coronavirus remains a health concern.


The topic has been surfacing in daily meetings, where discussions include issues such as how to manage shelters during a pandemic as well as how to keep first responders safe.


“This hurricane season will be unique,” said Highland Beach Police Chief Craig Hartmann. “It’s not just the threat of a storm, it’s also the threat of a virus we can catch from one another.”


One topic of special concern to coastal residents is how to manage evacuations and how to ensure people fleeing a storm have safe places to go.


“Countywide, emergency management teams are working to assure we are capable of handling COVID-19 and evacuations at the same time,” said Ocean Ridge Police Chief Hal Hutchins.


However, the clear message is that the virus threat should not stand in the way of leaving home if you’re told to go.


“The risk to your safety is less if you evacuate than if you stay,” Hutchins said.


With hurricane season’s official beginning on June 1, Johnson and others say now is the time for people who live in evacuation zones to start making plans for where they will go should they be asked to leave their homes.


As always, the recommendation is to find shelter nearby rather than far away. At the same time, people should also search for ways to minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19.


“Is there a way you could shelter with family and friends and still maintain a safe distance?” says Chris Bell, Delray Beach’s new emergency manager.


Johnson says residents should have a Plan B in case the relatives or friends they expect to stay with start feeling ill.


Those who plan to evacuate to a hotel might also want to have a backup plan because hotel rooms could be harder to find — especially if they are used as shelters.


“Potentially there could be fewer hotel rooms available,” says Bell, who served as the director of preparedness for the state of Vermont. “If your plan was a hotel, think of a family you can go to as a backup.”


Statewide and locally, emergency managers are also exploring options to ensure that people who have no other place to go can shelter together safely.


In addition to possibly using hotel rooms, alternatives could include setting up special COVID-19 shelters or requiring those using community shelters to wear masks and stay a specified distance apart.


Hutchins said managers are also looking at ways to ensure that people with transportation needs are able to get to shelters if needed.
Johnson says that no matter where you go if you have to evacuate, the social distancing rules in place now would still apply.


Those same rules would apply to first responders who are often called upon to stay together at a central location during a storm.


Bell says a lot of the practices in place for emergency workers — temperature checks when they enter a building and the wearing of masks even inside — will be employed during a storm emergency.


While evacuations in coastal areas would be likely should a hurricane threaten, Johnson says those evacuations may not be as widespread as they have been in the past.


The county, he said, has been working with the National Hurricane Center on modeling of storm surge to determine degree of threat to certain coastal areas and to help further tailor evacuation zones. That could lead to ordering evacuations on a case-by-case basis.

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