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Coronavirus is here and hurricane season is coming, whether Florida likes it or not

Forecasters are predicting an above-average season. The pandemic could pose unprecedented challenges to the way Florida responds to storms.

Last week, when a team of researchers forecasted an above-average 2020 hurricane season, Florida Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz was tweeting at 3M, a surgical mask maker.

Moskowitz had already declared himself the company’s “new Troll,” hoping he could pester his way into securing protective gear for Florida doctors responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

April is when emergency managers should be starting an annual blitz of hurricane preparedness messaging. They are instead consumed by a less familiar menace. The disease caused by the coronavirus, COVID-19, has already infected 14,504 Floridians and killed 283. Doctors expect the death toll to rise much higher, into the thousands.

Yet the first hurricane forecast is a reminder of a shadow the state cannot ignore.

The pandemic interruption could endure into hurricane season, which starts June 1, forcing unprecedented changes in the way Florida evacuates and shelters residents. Even if the outbreak eases, the sputtering economy would mean potentially hundreds of thousands more Floridians in need of financial assistance from a strained government.

Perhaps in a sign of the competing demands, Moskowitz was not available for an interview on this story. He is filling his days by haggling for medical gear, trying and failing to build deals for masks, he recently told the Times/Herald, while his office gets more than 500 email solicitations a day from potential vendors, not all of them reputable.

“The state is actively preparing for hurricane season,” agency spokesman Jason Mahon wrote in a statement. “At the State Emergency Operations Center, there is a planning section that is fully activated to ensure the state is preparing for all contingencies, and this includes planning for hurricane impacts during this outbreak.”

Officials are also working with county staffers on preparedness, Mahon said, and “will use all available resources to ensure that all Floridians are safe.”

A healthcare worker at a drive-through testing site at Raymond James Stadium on March 25 transports a handful of collected samples to a holding location to later be tested for coronavirus. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

Phil Klotzbach, one of the Colorado State University scientists behind the forecast, said he contemplated skipping this report because of the way coronavirus has fully gripped the nation.

“At the end of the day, the hurricanes are going to come whether we want them to or not,” he said. “The flowers are still blooming. The birds are still singing. Nature doesn’t really seem to care.”

The report calls for 16 named storms in 2020, including eight hurricanes and four major hurricanes. The season lasts June through November. According to the researchers, there’s a 45 percent chance of a major hurricane, meaning Category 3, 4 or 5, striking the East Coast of the United States, including Florida; and a 44 percent chance of a strike on the Gulf Coast, from Texas to the Panhandle. Both figures are above average. Meteorologists believe an active season is likely without El Niño, a pattern that suppresses Atlantic storm formation.

For comparison, at this time last year, the researchers were calling for 13 named storms, five hurricanes and two major hurricanes. The season ended up bringing 18 named storms, six of which were hurricanes, and three of those major.

The usual caveats apply: Hurricane forecasts are not perfect, and the margin for error is bigger for early forecasts. The Colorado State team will hone its predictions over the months to come.

The one constant, experts say, is preparation. Except this year.

The Governor’s Hurricane Conference, set for mid May in West Palm Beach, has been canceled. Bryan Koon, Florida’s former emergency management director, now a consultant, said the pandemic could disrupt the statewide hurricane exercise, an annual dry run in April or May to spot problems and fix them before a disaster.

In his time leading Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, from 2011 to 2017, Koon said he remembers training on stacked scenarios, including the state Emergency Operations Center going down in the middle of a hurricane. But never a storm combined with a pandemic.

“I’m pretty sure we didn’t plan for that one,” Koon said.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, center, talks about coronavirus at a news conference in March. On the left is Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees and on right is Jared Moskowitz, director of the Division of Emergency Management. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

Gov. Ron DeSantis has advised Floridians to stay at home until the end of April, other than for essential work or necessary tasks like grocery shopping. But scientists say social distancing, the practice of staying away from large groups, could last even longer.

That would create problems with sheltering residents when a storm hits. Florida typically steers evacuees into schools or other buildings, their cots lined up in close quarters.

“Is it safer to move somebody away from a potential storm surge and put them in a convention center where they’re more likely to get COVID-19? Maybe. Maybe not,” Koon said. “But somebody's going to have to make those kinds of decisions.”

Officials should already be contemplating whether they will pay for more hotel rooms for evacuees who are unable to afford a safe place, he said.

“We’re going to have to be prepared to spend some money where previously we haven’t,” Koon said.

Recent storms exposed flaws in Florida’s sheltering process, even without a pandemic. After Hurricane Irma, the Division of Emergency Management called for improvements in an after-action report, saying “perceived sheltering expectations and responsibilities differed significantly between the state and counties.” A year later, after Michael, another report highlighted how authorities had trouble keeping count of how many people were in shelters and also in tracking patients with special needs as they moved across counties.

In 2018, the Department of Health flagged “a trending gap in the manner of the special needs sheltering (SpNS) capability” in a training plan. Those with special needs include people with chronic health problems, the same group doctors say is among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Even if social distancing guidelines are lifted, Koon said, the hundreds of thousands of people unemployed because of the virus could need more help than they did just a year ago. Some might not have gas money to get out of town, he said, or cash for a new place to stay.

Before he said officials worried about a hurricane hitting toward the end of the month, when people just getting by were short on funds. “Now that’s going to be the entire month,” Koon said.

A home lay turned on its side in Mexico Beach months after Hurricane Michael. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]

States further depend on workers from the federal government and other areas to help with recovery. But staffing all over has been drained.

The New York Times and Politico reported the Federal Emergency Management Agency is thin. The Times found the agency is down to 19 staffers free to lead field operations, compared to 44 a month and a half ago, and Politico wrote the agency is trying to bring back employees who retired.

Knock on wood, Florida could make it through 2020 unscathed by hurricanes. The last time the economy cratered, in the Great Recession, the state enjoyed a fortunate drought of storms.

Forecasters know, though, that the potential is always there. Even amid the clamor of coronavirus last week, a Washington Post report raised alarm, noting water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are more than three degrees above average. Hardened Floridians are well aware that warm water can mean bigger hurricanes.

The temperatures might fluctuate again before hurricane season, said Jeff Masters, a meteorologist and former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hurricane hunter. Besides, he said, the Gulf of Mexico is always hot enough to spin off nasty storms, and Florida’s greatest risk generally comes later in the year.

“Four more months until peak hurricane season,” Masters said. “A lot can happen.”

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