COVID-19 could affect Florida’s hurricane response plans

We spoke with local Emergency Managers to see what their plans are

The Rymfire Elementary School shelter was being set up in Flagler County ahead of Hurricane Dorian.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida officials are considering adjusting the state’s hurricane-response plans to prepare for the possibility of an early storm season intersecting with the COVID-19 pandemic, Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz said Friday.

If storms threaten Florida in June or July, the state might need to rethink the use of mass shelters, shuttles to evacuate people and the way it recruits volunteers to help with storm recovery, Moskowitz said.

“It will differ between if we have early storms in June or July or if we have August and September storms,” when the state hopes the number of COVID-19 cases will have significantly decreased, he said.

If there is an early hurricane season, the state is considering using hotel rooms instead of schools and other types of mass shelters, Moskowitz said.

In shelters, the state would need to provide people with masks and other protective gear and monitor people’s temperatures if the deadly respiratory disease is still around, he said.

“Doing all of those things doesn’t mean COVID-19 still couldn’t get into a mass shelter and then if you take somebody’s temperature and their temperature is high, do you divert them to a COVID-19-only shelter? Those are the things that we are examining,” Moskowitz said.

Moskowitz said the state is in talks with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to see if it can turn on an assistance program for displaced disaster survivors before a storm makes landfall.

The federal program would allow the state to put people in hotels with the help of federal funds.

“It would also be good to help the (hotel) industry out in the state," he said.

Transportation to shelters is also a concern. Moskowitz said the state might want to talk to ride-sharing companies like Uber to avoid congregating too many people in buses or shuttles to and from shelters.

After a storm, the state might also have trouble finding volunteers amid the pandemic, Moskowitz said.

“We are not going to see the level of volunteers that we have seen in the past,” he said, noting that usually, the state sees about 10,000 volunteers help after a hurricane.

Moskowitz suggested that the state might need to ask teachers and state employees to volunteer or offer jobs to people who are unemployed.

Clay County

John Ward, Director of Emergency Management for Clay County told News4JAX they are already having conversations abut how opening hurricane shelters will look differently this year and how to keep their residents safe from both threats. He said that they would not use schools in the same way that they had previously. Instead of having a few shelters with three to four hundred people in a gym, they plan to open more shelters to spread people out among them. They plan to screen their residents as they come in for fever or signs of sickness and have a designated shelter for people showing signs of illness. Clay County does not face the same mass transportation challenges that other areas do- they primarily transport people with special needs, and that is already done on an individual basis, not through mass transportation.

Nassau County

Dave Richardson, Public Information Officer, Nassau County Emergency Operations Center told News4JAX, “This is an on-going issue for all county EM operations and planning. These discussions and decisions are taking place in coordination with the local school district, Department of Health and private partners.” While the challenges faced by each county are similar if a hurricane comes during Covid-19, it will be up to each county EOC to execute those plans. “Director of Emergency Management Greg Foster says Nassau County is no different and has begun to emphasize preparing for such an eventuality.”

St. Johns County

Linda Stoughton, Director of St. Johns County Emergency Management, plans on having St. Johns County residents go to schools for evacuation shelters this year.

News4JAX has reached out to other local emergency managers as we will update this article as they respond.

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