Florida has spent three months in the grips of a deadly pandemic. The hope is that the rate of deaths and infections will fall while restrictions are lifted and life nears some kind of normal.
A hurricane could destroy those hopes. Mass evacuations could spur new outbreaks, despite officials’ best efforts to try and keep COVID-19 from infecting shelters.
There is another ongoing disaster that would make things even worse:
The economic damage wrought by the pandemic is crippling the ability of Floridians to prepare, shelter and recover from a hurricane like never before.
“It’s going to be a scary time if we have a hurricane, for sure,” said Metropolitan Ministries chief programs officer Christine Long.
A record 1.7 million Floridians have filed for unemployment benefits. The 12.9 percent unemployment rate already exceeds the Great Recession. The pandemic has also cut hours and income.
The next domino could fall on Tuesday, when Gov. Ron DeSantis’ stay on evictions is set to expire — the day after the start of the Atlantic storm season. Unless it’s extended, a wave of eviction notices could start going out. Homeowners have also fallen behind on mortgage payments. Foreclosure can start after 120 days of overdue payment.
“People are already struggling with food insecurity due to COVID-19, job loss, hours lost, wages lost,” Long said. “That will only increase with the addition of hurricane season.”
A major storm would magnify the impact of the virus, threatening to impoverish many. They would be even more reliant on governments and nonprofits already strained by the coronavirus.
“There is greater pressure on the system than there has ever been,” said Feeding Tampa Bay President and CEO Thomas Mantz.
• • •
Here are some of the ways that the economic devastation would make a hurricane strike even worse:
• The state asks families to keep at least seven days of food, water and supplies on hand until help reaches their area. But it takes money to get ready for storm season, to buy supplies, generators, plywood and make needed repairs, such as fixing a leaky roof.
But record unemployment and the state’s slow and byzantine system for distributing unemployment benefits will leave many unable to prepare.
“There’s always folks who don’t have the means to do these things,” said Bryan Koon, a former Florida Division of Emergency Management director. “This year that population will be bigger.”
• The pandemic is changing the way emergency officials are handling hurricane shelters to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
Those who can safely stay at home or with others will be asked to do so. That would save shelter space for those who truly need it, and reduce the risk of infection in those spaces.
But many Floridians have fallen behind on their rent and mortgage payments. In the coming months, they may lose the homes they would otherwise have used for shelter.
The number of people who have nowhere else to go during a storm will likely rise — and the more people filling shelters, the greater the chance that the virus could spread.
“Shelter demand is typically based on economic need, on financial need,” said former Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long, now the chair of emergency management consultant Hagerty Consulting.
“I think you can see a spike in shelters because of the grave impact this has had on Americans’ checkbooks.”
• Last year Feeding Tampa Bay estimated that about 600,000 residents in its 10-county area in West Central Florida suffer from food insecurity, meaning they lack access to nutritious food. Thanks to the pandemic, the nonprofit estimates that number has grown to more than 1.3 million.
The organization prepared 45 million meals in all of 2019. This year they’re on target to provide 60 million.
Imagine the level of need after a hurricane.
“We are thinking about it a lot,” Mantz said. “We’ve been reminding our board and our supporters that this is a potential (event) that’s likely to happen and we need to be prepared for it.”
• Before the pandemic, Catholic Charities worked to address Tampa Bay’s No. 1 social problem, lack of affordable housing. The pandemic has only worsened housing insecurity.
“What happens when we layer on a real natural disaster onto the coronavirus disaster?” Catholic Charities spokesman Lou Ricardo said. “The inventory of homes may actually decline because you’ll have damage to apartments and homes.”
When the pandemic started, Metropolitan Ministries set up a rental assistance hotline. In one week, it received 1,700 requests for help and had to stop taking calls. The Tampa nonprofit, which helps at-risk and homeless families, said it has seen a seven-fold increase in requests for help from those who can’t afford to pay rent, utilities or food bills.
“It is an overwhelming need right now, and this is without a weather event ...,” Long said. “A lot of the requests are related to rent, utilities, people who recently lost their jobs, haven’t received their unemployment benefits and don’t know when they’ll start working again.”
• The economic crisis will also hinder recovery from a major storm.
Residents struggling to pay their rent or mortgage may be forced to cancel flood and wind damage policies at the worst possible time, Koon said.
“We will have less people insured when a storm hits,” he said.
Koon said what the Federal Emergency Management Agency pays after a storm won’t be enough to cover major repairs. His firm IEM, which advises the public and private sector on disaster preparedness, says the average individual and household federal assistance payment was $3,593 after Hurricanes Harvey ($4,440), Irma ($1,317), Michael ($4,757) and Florence ($3,858).
Those who can’t afford to repair their homes will see them plummet in value, setting them even further back financially.
• • •
As personal finances have fallen, nonprofits and governments have stepped up to help. But they’re also talking about what will happen next, as the financial situation for many deteriorates through the peak of hurricane season, from August to mid-October.
“We suspect, based on what we're seeing economically, that the unemployment rate will rise, and food insecurity rates will rise,” Mantz said. “So you have people who are already economically disadvantaged going into a storm. They will have spent their savings during this crisis, and they’ll have very little resources available to them after a storm.”
Still, he said the bay area has endured hard times before. These are problems that can be addressed, he said, but it’ll take planning and effort.
“I was in food relief in ‘08 and ‘09, when we had a significant downturn in the economy and we made our way through that,” he said. “What will happen is the need will escalate, and every nonprofit has to build out its capacity to meet that need …
“Is it harder than it’s been? Yes. But is it impossible? No.”
Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton — who endured four federal disaster declarations in his 16 years as the top official in Lake County, Ill. — said the pandemic has already inspired the kinds of efforts that will help the region get through a major storm.
In his county alone he said there are 18 different working groups addressing issues like food insecurity. School districts set up feeding stations during the pandemic, for example, and that could serve as a model to help families after a hurricane.
Those efforts won’t stop after a hurricane.
“The amazing part during the pandemic has been to watch community groups come together,” he said. “The community has unbelievably stepped up to try and answer the call.”
But local organizations have already been treating the pandemic like a natural disaster. What resources will be left to address the next disaster?
“I’m concerned about donor fatigue,” Long said. “Certainly people are helping now. We have a wonderful, generous community.
“But how often and for how long can our neighbors continue to support these kinds of efforts?”
• • •
2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane
PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Protect your home, business, documents and photos
BUILD YOUR KIT: The gear you need to stay safe from the storm — and COVID-19
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