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Hurricane season looms for Tampa Bay seniors already worried about COVID-19

As pandemic meets hurricanes, seniors must decide whether to leave home.

The coronavirus pandemic. The hurricane season.

One encourages staying in place. The other may require you to leave your home.

Floridians have a difficult decision every year about whether to stay home or leave when a hurricane is approaching. But for older residents, who are more at risk from the coronavirus, the decision this year is even more agonizing. In Florida, 85 percent of COVID-19 deaths have involved people 65 and older.

Staying home won’t be possible for people struggling financially, who can’t afford to stock up on hurricane food and supplies. Seniors who typically purchase supplies in advance may not feel safe braving superstore crowds with COVID-19 at large. And those living in mobile homes or low-lying areas may have no choice but to leave.

But going to a storm shelter could be risky, with people in close quarters more likely to spread the virus. And evacuating is worrisome with the costs of gas and hotel stays, and the potential of contracting COVID-19.

Vicki Watson, a 65-year-old realtor who moved to Florida eight years ago, said she always stays in her Dunedin home during hurricanes and will again this year.

She doesn’t have anyone close to stay with. And she couldn’t bring her two cats to a shelter. Plus, this year there’s also the health risk, she said.

Watson has a small generator she bought after Hurricane Irma and enough food and bottled water to get through a storm.

“I would rather just rough it out at my house,” she said. "I just don’t want to risk it.”

Most residents should stay home during any hurricane event, said Cathie Perkins, director of Pinellas County Emergency Management, adding, “A shelter should be a last resort.”

It’s even more important this year, she said, because of concerns about crowding in shelters. If someone must leave home, she recommends looking for alternatives, such as staying with family or friends.

About a third of the residents in Pinellas and Pasco counties are over the age of 60, said Anne Marie Winter, executive director of the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas. And in Hillsborough County, the number is just under 20 percent.

“It’s an emotional roller coaster for them, because they’re not sure what to do,” she said.

Winter’s organization helps seniors create personal hurricane preparation plans and provides them with information on special-needs shelters and evacuation routes. If plans involve an evacuation, staffers make sure the destination is far enough inland to minimize the risk, but close enough that getting home isn’t a trek.

“We ask them that if there is an evacuation order, that they have somewhere to go,” Winter said. “We know that shelters become overcrowded very quickly and can’t necessarily attend to all of the needs of seniors for any length of time.”

Social distancing to reduce the risk of virus spread reduces shelter capacity by a third, Perkins said. So Pinellas County is looking at additional venues, she said, including asking churches to shelter their parishioners.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency already has approved plans to open hotels as shelters, as well, so evacuees can better social distance. Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties are looking into that option.

Pinellas County shelters will screen evacuees for virus symptoms and take temperatures before admitting people, Perkins said. Those admitted will be required to wear face masks. Evacuees will receive 60 square feet per individual or family to keep everyone socially distanced.

Pasco and Hillsborough County shelters will also screen evacuees, checking temperatures and asking medical wellness questions, according to county officials. Shelter staffers and evacuees will be required to wear masks.

One of the main concerns of local officials, particularly this year, is helping vulnerable citizens, including seniors, said Bryan Koon, vice president of an emergency management consulting firm and former director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

“The state needs to have back-up Plan A, back-up Plan B, back-up Plan C, back-up Plan F,” Koon said. “The storm doesn’t care about bureaucracy. They need multiple plans. Any misstep will kill people.”

Because of coronavirus complications, counties likely will evacuate fewer people this year, he said. The main exemption to that is people living in mobile homes.

“They will fare very badly in a storm,” Koon said.

But the coronavirus won’t change hurricane planning much for Christine Mitchell, 67, who lives in Pointe West, a 55+ mobile home community in Largo.

If it’s a mild hurricane, she and her husband, Peter, 78, will go to her sister-in-law’s house in Clearwater. If it’s worse, they’ll pack up and leave the state.

“Our RV is gassed and ready to go,” Mitchell said. “Our home may be gone when we get back, but we lived in our RV for three years while we toured the country and can do it again if necessary.”

She wears a mask when she visits the Publix down the road and washes her hands multiple times a day. She’ll have to add those routines to any hurricane evacuation plan.

“I’m not a fearful person. Neither one of us is," Christine Mitchell said. "You do what you can, and that’s it.”

In the meantime, the Pasco-Pinellas agency will be standing by, ready to call the seniors it serves and give them advice specific to any individual storm.

“It’s really going to depend on the severity of the storm and what the COVID-19 situation looks like in Pinellas and Pasco counties at that time,” Winter said.

For assistance, call the Area Agency on Aging Pasco-Pinellas at: (800) 963-5337. Or call the Senior Connection Center, which serves Hillsborough, Polk, Manatee, Highlands and Hardee counties at: (800) 963-5997.

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