For Floridians, the remainder of the year presents two dangers: an over-active hurricane season and the risk of contracting the coronavirus.
Researchers from the University of South Florida are studying how hurricane evacuations may be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic this year. Jennifer Collins, a professor of geosciences at USF, and Elizabeth Dunn, instructor in the USF College of Public Health, received a National Science Foundation Rapid Response grant to work with National Weather Service, Louisiana Public Health Institute and other meteorologists and emergency planners on the study.
Early research by USF professors shows that a significant number of people who previously would have gone to an evacuation shelter wouldn’t go this year because of the fear of getting the virus.
“I think people need to consider and get ready,” Collins said. “This is an active hurricane season and we’re just into the second half now.”
The National Hurricane Center predicted an unusually busy storm season in 2020. There have been 23 named storms, just four shy of the 2005 record of 27 storms. But 20 of the storms that formed this year set records for early development.
The research team is using surveys to reach Florida residents and those impacted by Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm which made landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 26. The team also plans to survey residents impacted by Hurricane Sally, the Category 2 storm which struck Alabama on Sept. 16.
Some of the work began in June, where 7,102 Florida residents responded to a 40-question survey about their hurricane evacuation plans. More than half of those respondents said they felt vulnerable to the coronavirus because of pre-existing medical conditions. More than 70 percent of participants said they felt being in a shelter during the pandemic was more dangerous than hurricane hazards.
Older residents who participated in the survey said they felt especially at risk and shelter-averse.
These early results were shared with emergency planners in Florida and other states to help evaluate storm preparedness strategies. Collins said she hopes the results help local officials learn about how to better tailor their messages and practices.
Dunn, from the College of Public Health, said she’s been training with local leaders to offer guidance for how to best run shelters, deal with staff burnout and handle public messaging in the pandemic.
Unlike special-needs shelters, which are run by the Florida Department of Health, she said local officials may not have had to worry about strict infection protocols at general shelters in previous years. They aren’t sure where to begin.
“If you do not live in a safe location or your area is prone to storm surge, water is extremely powerful and dangerous,” Dunn said. “That’s gonna mean the hurricane is definitely more dangerous than COVID-19.”
In Pinellas County, hurricane shelters were redesigned this year to give each person about 60 feet of space instead of the usual 20 feet, said Dave Connor, a spokesman with Pinellas County. Local government is also identifying other spaces where they could house people with the coronavirus or suspected exposure. Specialized shelters will be equipped with rapid COVID-19 testing.
“We’re trying to share the ways that we are keeping, minimizing the risk of disease spread at the shelter,” Connor said.
Examining Hurricane Laura helped Collins and her team gauge how seriously people responded to the storm.
One respondent in Louisiana said the coronavirus was the last thing on their mind, Collins said. People aren’t as preoccupied with wearing masks as they are securing food.
“The virus seems very far away right now to people who have lost quite literally everything they have,” Collins said.
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