It was the second week of April and the pandemic had Florida officials scrambling. Local emergency management directors were on a conference call discussing COVID-19. Someone asked the inevitable question:
“He said ‘Hurricane season is right down the road, what are we going to do?’ ” said Pasco County Emergency Management Director Andrew Fossa. “And you could hear crickets. No one had put those two together before.”
That double-disaster scenario is upon us: Florida must prepare for a hurricane strike during a deadly pandemic.
COVID-19 changes everything about storm season: How families and communities will prepare; how residents will evacuate and shelter; and how we’ll deal with the aftermath.
And there’s a third disaster that affects the other two: the economic crisis.
Floridians filed more than 2 million unemployment claims in May. How many families will lack the resources to prepare, shelter and recover if a major storm makes landfall?
Emergency officials will take precautions to protect hurricane shelters from the coronavirus. But the priority will be protecting people from the storm.
“They will do everything they can to mitigate further spreading the virus, but they cannot guarantee it,” said former Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long, who works at Hagerty Consulting, an emergency management consultant.
“You first have to save lives from the immediate threat of the hurricane. You have to save them from flooding and drowning.”
The Tampa Bay Times asked local and state emergency management officials and disaster planning experts to discuss what hurricane measures could look like this year.
The challenges are daunting, but Floridians can prepare for what’s to come.
The Atlantic storm season officially starts Monday. Here are seven things you need to know about a hurricane season like no other:
1. Plan, plan, plan
Emergency officials always advise Floridians to have a plan. But what if that plan falls apart?
“In the past, if you had a plan and it failed, you could find a backup,” said former Florida emergency management director Bryan Koon, who now works at the consulting firm IEM. “This year, your backup plan could be hard to come by.”
You’ll need a plan to hunker down, plans to stay with several friends or relatives, a plan to find a motel room on safe ground, and the locations of nearby shelters. You’ll need multiple options because you don’t know which ones will be disrupted by an outbreak of the virus. The pandemic may end up limiting space in shelters and taking up motel capacity.
If you plan to drive to Georgia or Alabama — just like thousands did to flee Irma in 2017, to the dismay of emergency officials — know that the virus makes rest stops, gas stations and restaurants even riskier. Officials also don’t want you stuck in traffic when a storm makes landfall.
And what happens if one of your companions becomes symptomatic far from home? Drive tens of miles, not hundreds.
2. No place like home
During the pandemic, the best hurricane shelter might be your home.
The people who need to evacuate are those who are at the greatest risk from water and wind — those who live in flood zones and manufactured housing. But if you don’t live in a flood zone, if your house can withstand one category above the strength of the storm heading your way, think hard about staying put. Save shelter space for those who truly need it.
Going to a shelter could also increase the chances that your family may be exposed to COVID-19 — and if you’re an asymptomatic carrier, then you’re putting the other evacuees at risk. If your family has already been isolating at home, in a non-evacuation zone, why leave?
“Staying home during a hurricane or tropical storm might be a safer alternative than going to a shelter,” said Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council executive director Sean Sullivan. “The government will do the best it possibly can to keep everyone safe. But the decision to go to a shelter really has to be a personal one.”
3. Safety in numbers
If you are able to ride out the storm at home, if your family is isolating and in good health, if you have extra room, consider extending your good fortune:
Let other family members or a group of friends hunker down with you.
That would spare them the risks associated with shelters, and make it easier for others to use those shelters.
But be honest about who you invite in and your ability to host them. Will your guests have their own room(s) and bathroom to maintain social distancing? Will they bring kids and pets? Do their kids and pets get along with your kids and pets? And let’s be real here: Do the adults get along?
Ideally, your guests have taken the virus as seriously as you have. Make sure they bring their masks and sanitizer, along with their own supply of food and water.
“If you are in a non-evacuation zone, then we really need you to shelter in place,” said Pinellas County Emergency Management Director Cathie Perkins. “If you can take in other family members, if you can host safely, we want people to look at that.”
Think of hosting as a partnership, Koon said, and as a backup plan.
“If you have friends, particularly in other parts of the state, come up with a pact,” he said. “If it hits you, stay with me. If it hits me, I’ll stay with you.”
4. Everyone needs masks
From now on, every hurricane kit should be stocked with pandemic necessities: hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and at least two cloth masks per person. So don’t stop trying to buy that stuff over the summer and fall.
If you have to evacuate, shelters will likely require everyone to wear masks.
“We’ll try to encourage our residents to have masks,” said Hernando County Emergency Management Director Cecilia Patella. “You can make a mask yourself or ask a friend to make you a mask. And really it’s to protect someone else, not just themselves.”
And remember, the state now asks every Florida family to have enough food, water and supplies to last seven days. That’s how long it could be before help and new supplies reach your area after a storm. The pandemic could delay that response even further.
This is an especially bad year to risk infection plunging into a crowded big-box store at the last minute to panic buy what you need.
It has never been more important to prepare in advance.
5. Sheltering during a pandemic
Hurricane shelters will be especially vulnerable to a virus that can be transmitted through airborne droplets and remain viable on hard surfaces. Emergency officials recognize this danger and are coming up with strategies to prevent outbreaks.
“We’ve had hurricane responses where we’ve dealt with infectious disease on a smaller scale, like maybe an outbreak of Norwalk virus at one or two shelters,” said Hillsborough Fire Rescue Operations Section Chief Iñaki Rezola. “This has certainly opened up peoples’ eyes to the possibilities.”
During the pandemic, everyone who enters the Pasco County Emergency Operations Center is screened for the virus. Their temperature is taken and they’re asked a series of questions.
Evacuees may have to go through a similar process before they’re allowed into shelters. If they show symptoms, they may be sent to another shelter — or, if it’s too late for that, each shelter may have to set aside space to isolate symptomatic evacuees.
Shelters also will have to be cleaned and sterilized much more frequently to prevent outbreaks. And while officials want evacuees to bring their own masks and hand sanitizer, the reality is people will show up unprepared. Every shelter will need its own supply of safety gear, further straining government resources.
Be warned: Those who do not take the virus seriously, or consider masks an infringement of their rights, will not find a receptive audience in hurricane shelters.
“I think we’ll need some hard-nosed shelter managers to enforce the rules this year,” Koon said.
6. New ways, new shelters
Emergency officials are looking for new ways to house people.
“We may open more shelters for limited evacuation to provide greater square footage,” said Hillsborough Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley Jr. “We’re also looking at additional facilities that might be available, such as inventories of hotels."
Opening more shelters helps keep people further apart. Officials are looking at all kinds of structures: motels, vacant dorms, community colleges, ice rinks, multi-purpose facilities. But governments will need more people to staff those shelters, and more resources to maintain them.
Some counties may rely on motels to house families with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19. A family could occupy two rooms: One for the patient, and the rest of the group in the other. They would be isolated from each other, but still together.
“Those are prime locations we can use for COVID patients,” Fossa said. “We can segregate and house them there.”
7. Recovery will be harder
A direct strike would be devastating in any year. But this year, recovery will be particularly hard.
Floridians who lost their jobs will have less money to get back on their feet. A family that lost one income to the pandemic could lose the other to a hurricane. Municipalities that lost sales tax revenue will also struggle. Everyone will be more reliant on help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government resources.
Those are the long-term problems. In the short term, where will those who lose their homes to a major storm go? The more time they have to spend in shelters, the greater the health risk.
“It puts an additional burden on emergency managers and community leaders to find emergency solutions,” Koon said, “particularly in a market where rental space is already hard to find.”
There are Panhandle communities that still haven’t recovered 1½ years since Hurricane Michael struck in 2018. How long would it take to recover from a hurricane in 2020?
2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane
PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm
PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job
NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter