It’s a word that you keep hearing again and again in 2020 – unprecedented.
From climate change fueled disasters to the global pandemic gripping humanity, it’s accurate to say we are living in the first time where every state in America is under a disaster declaration.
Now, it’s hurricane season and the potential for a major storm in South Florida comes in the time of COVID-19.
The most difficult task for emergency preparation in these times will be evacuations and managing hurricane shelters while practicing social distancing and safety. Emergency managers fear that people will be more concerned about the coronavirus than the threat of a potentially fatal storm surge and wind.
“When you think about it, we’ve been telling people they’re safer at home. We’re telling the people to isolate. We’re telling them to stay away from people,” said Frank Rollason, the emergency manager for Miami-Dade County.
Local officials hope to address some of this by preparing more shelters, usually being placed in schools with fewer people where they will be placed in classrooms that will be sanitized instead of large areas like gyms and cafeterias.
“The other thing we’re looking at is the hotels. We’re identifying hotels in the western and northern part of the county that are out of the evacuation zones that we can occupy,“ said Rollason. “But we have to face the reality that if we have a Dorian looming upon us, that we’re going to have to occupy these facilities and it’s going to be tight. We’re going to test people coming in.”
Storm preparations will also require a substantial stockpile of personal protective equipment for first responders as well as residents in the shelters.
“As far as PPE is concerned with hurricane season, we’re getting all sorts of reserves,” said Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “We’re going to have 10 millions masks in reserve by the time hurricane season starts.”
Adding to the challenge is the potential of complacency, as an already fatigued population from COVID-19 has some officials worried that residents will resist storm preps.
With storms forming and intensifying rapidly, response time may be shorter than ever.
“That’s something that we all have to realize. That’s why preparedness isn’t always about the seven days. We have to have our business plans, our personal plans. We need to exercise them and we have to react in two or three days sometimes,” Said National Hurricane Center director Ken Graham.
“We also need to make sure that people are prepared with a week’s worth of supplies, not the 72 hours of supplies that usually we would say because we have this COVID-19 crisis functioning at the same time,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “You want to make sure that if there’s a delay in getting things up and running again in the aftermath of a hurricane that people have a week’s worth of supplies in their house so people should start stocking up now."
Congress provided funding by passing the Cares Act as part of the COVID-19 relief package that puts $40 billion in FEMA’s pockets for disaster recovery. But the hope is that they will never have to use it.
FEMA says it is preparing for the worst and it's opened an additional command center in Washington, D.C. to deal with any disasters not associated with COVID-19.