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Hurricanes or coronavirus? It can’t be a choice. | Editorial
Emergency managers need to be prepared to deal with both challenges simultaneously.
This GOES-16, GeoColor satellite image taken Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019, at 17:10 UTC and provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows Hurricane Dorian moving off the east coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean. (NOAA via AP)
This GOES-16, GeoColor satellite image taken Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019, at 17:10 UTC and provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows Hurricane Dorian moving off the east coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean. (NOAA via AP) [ AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jun. 1, 2020

Simultaneously coping with the coronavirus pandemic and preparing for hurricane season that officially begins Monday feels like an impossible task. But that is the job of emergency managers, to prepare for the inconceivable. The state is expanding its priorities from solely coronavirus to refining and publicizing plans to grapple with a major hurricane in the time of a pandemic. The worst thing, for everyone, on top of the current crisis would be to encounter a catastrophic weather event unprepared.

Much like coronavirus models, hurricane forecasts tend to fluctuate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is expected to be even more active than normal. It predicts 13 to 19 named storms, with six to 10 becoming hurricanes. Three to six of those storms are predicted to become major hurricanes, which are categorized as a 3, 4 or 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane scale. Compare that with last year, a forecast that predicted 13 named storms and a season that surpassed that with 18 named storms, including Hurricane Dorian, which threatened to devastate Florida and did devastate the Bahamas.

With an almost 50 percent chance of a major hurricane hitting Florida in some way this season, emergency managers should be running more drills and ramping up efforts to encourage residents to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. It’s understandable that the state’s emergency management director has been largely consumed with the handling the pandemic and acquiring millions of masks and other protective gear. But the dawn of the hurricane season will require more balance and even tougher decisions than usual about preparing for hurricanes and keeping residents safe.

The questions local emergency managers should be asking themselves right now include: How do we safely shelter people in a time of social distancing? Can we encourage more residents to ride out smaller storms at home? How do we accommodate the changing economic situation as it relates to the security of our residents? Can they afford to evacuate the state if they are unemployed and struggling to pay their daily expenses? And ultimately, it comes down to one question: Which risk is worse? The state is exploring hurricane shelter sites that would only take in people with coronavirus, which is one practical adjustment.

Florida by no means has a spotless previous record for sheltering its residents in the wake of a storm, with problems emerging particularly in the special needs community. Hurricane Irma exposed discrepancies in the way the state and counties expected to shelter residents, according to the Division of Emergency Management. And a report following Hurricane Michael found the state had difficulty tracking how many people were in shelters and following those with special needs through the state.

Jared Moskowitz, director of the state’s Division of Emergency Management, told the governor and Cabinet Thursday that hotels are being signed up to serve as shelters in some areas. He noted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends shelters hold less than 50 people, screen people as they arrive and have isolation areas for those who become ill. All of this will require more effort than usual at the county level.

Residents should also use this time to better prepare individually in the case of a hurricane. The state’s hurricane prep sales tax holiday began Friday, giving shoppers time this week to get their things ready with an added bonus of not having to pay sales tax. Emergency managers suggest items like flashlights, batteries, cell-phone chargers, water, food and medication for three days to two weeks.

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Emergency managers — and Floridians — don’t want to be in a position where they can’t answer basic questions by the time a hurricane comes. Now is the time to get prepared for a hurricane, when the threat of one feels far on the horizon. Things can change in the blink of an eye, as everyone learned again with the spread of the coronavirus. Let’s be prepared to deal with both challenges simultaneously.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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