Many US states scrambling as hurricane season begins amidst COVID-19
Officials across southern United States are still scrambling to adjust their hurricane plans to the novel coronavirus. The big unknown: Where will people fleeing storms go?
The Associated Press surveyed more than 70 counties and states from Texas to Virginia, with more than 60 per cent of coastal counties saying as of late May that they were still solidifying plans for public hurricane shelters.
They were also altering preparations for dealing with the sick and elderly, protective equipment, and clean-up costs.
In Georgia’s McIntosh County, south of Savannah, Emergency Management Agency Director Ty Poppell said evacuations during the pandemic would be a “nightmare”. He worried about social distancing at shelters and on buses used to get people out.
“I’d love to be able to tell you we’ve got that answered right now,” Poppell said. “It’s a work in progress.”
Hurricane season officially starts today, though tropical storms Arthur and Bertha arrived early. Forecasters are expecting a busier-than-normal season.
“Everything that we do will be affected in one way or another, big and/or small, by COVID-19,” Florida Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz said.
Many counties are taking federal advice and hope to use hotels as smaller-scale shelters, while others plan to use more parts of schools besides large gymnasiums. Still others, especially in Louisiana, plan for big shelters with more social distancing.
Officials emphasise that shelters are last resort, urging people to stay with friends or in hotels. But massive unemployment is making the expense of hotels less feasible.
“Our biggest change to our hurricane plan is sheltering. How are we going to shelter those that have to evacuate? How are going to shelter those that are positive COVID patients? There are multiple ideas that we are considering right now,” Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Director Greg Michel said.
During tornadoes in April, the state used hotels as shelters, which was good practice for hurricane season, he said.
Most counties surveyed said they’re still figuring out shelters.
While that may sound worrisome, it could be beneficial, because emergency managers need to update plans as the pandemic changes, University of South Carolina disaster expert Susan Cutter said.
“Disasters are not going to stop for COVID-19,” Brad Kieserman, an American Red Cross executive, told reporters in May. “Hope is not a plan. And we’ve got to plan for tens of thousands of people to evacuate in the face of hurricanes and wildfires and other disasters.”
Some officials acknowledged they aren’t as ready for storm season as they were a year ago because of the virus. Others were more confident.
“We feel the current rating of preparedness for Craven County [North Carolina)] is 50 per cent or lower as we still have not finalised shelter options,” said Stanley Kite, emergency services director of the county hit by 2018’s Hurricane Florence. “Before COVID-19, would have estimated 90 per cent.”
Shelters were the most mentioned worry, but comfort levels with other aspects of hurricane preparations varied, reflecting the difference in how states plan for disasters. Having enough staff for shelters is a persistent problem locally and nationally, said Walton County, Florida, emergency management chief Jeff Goldberg.
Protective equipment is the biggest shortfall in several North Carolina counties. Money is always an issue, with counties often waiting for federal reimbursement. Handling nursing homes, hospitals, and COVID-19 patients “is one of the most difficult challenges and would require a larger state response,” said Jeffrey Johnson, fire chief in Newport News, Virginia.
Other places downplayed concerns. Orleans Parish, where 2005’s Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, has added social distancing and protective equipment to a 10-year-old plan that’s otherwise “essentially unchanged. It’s a good plan,” said Collin Arnold, head of the city’s emergency preparedness office.
A year ago, officials in North Carolina’s Beaufort County would have rated their readiness going into hurricane season at a 95 on a 0-to-100 scale. With the virus, that’s down to 75. Brad Baker, emergency management director of Florida’s Santa Rosa County, gave the same numbers “because there’s a lot of unknowns with COVID.”
Vice-President Mike Pence told President Donald Trump on Thursday that the federal government would ensure state and local authorities can handle hurricanes. “Bottom line, Mr President, we’re ready.”
Academics who study disasters aren’t so sure.
“I don’t think they [federal officials] are doing the job they should be doing. I worry about their ability to handle a very large hurricane in addition to COVID-19,” University of South Carolina’s Cutter said.
She and others said mixed messages on the coronavirus means some people aren’t believing what they’re hearing from Washington in an emergency.
“I think our lives are in danger now because we don’t trust the federal government,” Cutter said.
Between the pandemic, a crashing economy, and patchy federal responses to three 2017 hurricanes, people should prepare for little help from the Government, Virginia Commonwealth University emergency preparedness professor Hans-Louis Charles said.
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