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Florida Matters: Mixing Hurricanes And Coronavirus Distancing

Photo showing Hurricanes Katia, Irma, and Jose
Three simultaneously active hurricanes in 2017: From left to right: Katia, Irma, and Jose

While most of us are still sheltering in place, trying to ride out the storm of coronavirus, well -- guess what -- a real storm may be just around the corner.

So if we don't have enough to worry about, our "official' hurricane season starts in less than two weeks. Tropical Storm Arthur didn't wait, having already pounded the North Carolina coast.

So how are we going to blend the emergencies of maybe having to get out of town with the need to socially distance from your possibly virulent neighbors?

We'll get some tips from Marcus Martin, planning chief with Hillsborough County Emergency Management; and first, from Cathie Perkins, director of Pinellas County Emergency Management.

Here's a transcript of some of our conversation, first with Cathie Perkins:

In the time before coronavirus, emergency evacuation shelters were the local public schools, but now even students can't get into there. So are we going to have any shelters at all this summer?

Yes, I think we're going to see a blend of using some of these congregate shelters, as well as potentially using some non-congregate sites. And I know the state of Florida is currently working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on getting permission on how we can use non-congregate sites as well. But you know, the community shelters, we do need those as well. But we are going to have to implement some social distancing, and additional protective measures for people that need to come into those sites.

Do we know if we're even going to have any public schools at all this summer, like high schools have been used in the past?

Yeah, we're looking at the same schools and other sites that we had on our list from last year. So instead of looking at 20 square feet per person, we're looking at 60 square feet per person, and then also looking at who evacuated for Hurricane Irma, the family size and type that came in. So that'll help us with our floor plan and how we're laying that out. And then we're going to be meeting with the school board to talk about what additional sites might be available to us as well.

So basically, we're looking at opening the schools but maybe spacing everybody out 6 feet or 15 feet apart, something like that.

Photo of Cathie Perkins
Credit Pinellas County Emergency Management
Cathie Perkins

We're looking at how do we keep family units together and then having a space between them and the next group of people that are there. We'll also be looking at having increased sanitation at the school sites, having hand sanitizer, having masks available, we will encourage anybody that's coming into a public shelter to bring in their own personal protective equipment -if they have it. We know that they might have some difficulty. We're hoping that everybody's even wearing cloth masks out in public now. And if they can get hand sanitizer and make that part of their hurricane kit, we would encourage that but we're also looking to have those supplies available as well.

Do you foresee any problems, maybe staffing some of these shelters?

So for the shelter workers, we are going to have a higher level of protection for them. So that way, we can work with them accordingly. And again, it's all going to be about social distancing. And if we you know, we do have people that come in that you know, maybe are pending a test, or could potentially be positive, we are looking at what are the alternative locations where those people can go.

Cathie, anything else you want to mention?

I just want to remind people that COVID-19 has not gone away. Things are reopening and people are moving around when you're in public places, you know, we highly encourage that social distancing, highly encourage people having their own masks. And you know, for people that may be immunocompromised or at higher risk, you know, try to limit that. And that's really considering that for hurricane season. So if you know you have those higher risks, really start thinking about that.

Now, if you did have to evacuate, where could you go? And if you don't have family or friends, or you can't stay in a hotel, make those plans. If you have special needs, please get on our registry now. So we know that you're out there and you need our help so we can make plans for that.

The silver lining to all of the COVID-19 planning is it's brought so many more members of the community to the table. We've got so many great partners working together having all these discussions. We just have to continue to be vigilant and be kind and to help each other out every way we can.

Next, we'll travel across the bay to see what preparations are underway for the upcoming pandemic/hurricane season with Marcus Martin. He's planning chief with Hillsborough County Emergency Management.

Marcus, you have the unenviable position of having to plan for a hurricane in the middle of a Coronavirus pandemic. How's the planning going so far for this so far?

Good. We have all the right players engaged already in the process of our response. Obviously COVID-19 has its own challenges, but a lot of the same players a lot of the same plans. So getting ready for hurricane season, we were already engaged. We're moving forward with planning. We're in the process of updating our plans to encompass the challenges of COVID-19.

When you talk hurricanes, you think shelters and when you think shelters you think, basically high schools, elementary schools, and right now, we can't even send our school children to the schools. Are we still planning to have shelters at schools?

Our schools are an important part of our planning when it comes to hurricane preparedness. We coordinate with the school board to make sure that our shelters that we choose are up to code, up to standards to be able to withstand the surge elements that we're experiencing.

Residents are reminded that evacuation shelters are still a last resort. It's not something that you want to be your first option. So more than ever, we're encouraging everybody to look at family, look at friends that are out of surge zones. We're looking at options of maybe opening up all shelters at one time to maximize the space so that we can spread people out and again, respect those social distancing.

What kind of distances are we talking about? And how do you keep people from mixing?

I'm not going to say it's not going to be a challenge, but we're reminding everybody that PPE's, masks, are going to be important as part of that process. We want to make sure that something probably that's a little different this year, that we're going to be encouraging or that we are starting to encourage. In the past, we would have said, make sure with your disaster kits, that you have food, that you have water, any personal hygiene items, any documents on a flash drive.

Well, in addition to the standard, we're going to be also asking that you bring your masks, that you bring your gloves, that you come prepared to assist us in the social distancing, and protecting yourselves as well as those around you. We will have minimal PPE 's there as well to support that.

A hypothetical situation here: if you know a hurricane was howling out there and I run to the nearest shelter at the last minute, and there aren't any masks left or any PPE’s left. What happens to them then - do you kick them out? Do you let them in you put a bandana around them?

Hopefully, we have masks. There's also social distancing, utilizing other spaces in the shelter, utilizing other rooms. So I think we're going to be using all of those options. No inventory is going to be unlimited. So I think we have to utilize it smartly and prepare as best we can by pre-ordering and pre-positioning and making sure that we have enough to support the community.

At the height of the coronavirus outbreak, a lot of nurses and first responders were getting sick. Do you think you have enough people to man the shelters properly?

Yes, we work with our county and county employees to make sure that they're trained, that they're prepared. We communicate with them to let them know what our game plan is. And then there's other agencies and other partners in the community that we work with as well. So we have redundancies built into it to ensure that we're able to effectively staff appropriately.

Tell me how difficult it is to coordinate hurricane preparation during a pandemic. There must be things that you have never experienced before. Is it as difficult as it sounds?

I will say it offers an opportunity to take into considerations that you might not have thought of before - the social distancing,  additional resources such as masks, gloves, things that were not a part of previous hurricane evacuations.  I think that process is in place that mechanism in place as part of our planning cycle. And it's worked so far. We continue to be mindful of all the additional considerations as we move forward. And so far, so good.

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Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.