JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Steven Woodard, chief of the city’s Emergency Preparedness Division, is monitoring a disturbance in the Atlantic that the National Hurricane Center says is forecast to become a tropical storm on Wednesday night.
The system is expected to bring rain to Florida by the weekend, and Woodard said it might turn out to be a good test run of the city’s preparedness to handle storms this hurricane season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In fact, Woodard said the emergency operations center is changing the way it has worked in the past. This hurricane season, the EOC will guide the city virtually.
In the past, there were many people from various agencies on hand on the fourth floor, making key decisions on opening shelters and evacuation plans.
The concern this year is the crowds and lack of social distancing. Now, Woodard said, they are going to keep the EOC as a remote operation.
“We have gotten very good at being able to handle meetings virtually using all of the new technology that is there,” Woodard said. “We found it is effective. We can get all of our key stakeholders together, and that may be over 100 people.”
Instead of holding news conferences in person, with city leaders standing side by side, they will be held online through Zoom. That is how the mayor and others are currently doing briefings, which the mayor has typically been doing several times a week during the pandemic.
“It’s a very efficient and effective way of reaching out to a large number of people in coordinating whatever efforts we need to coordinate,” Woodard said
Plans for emergency shelters changing, too
With the pandemic, Woodard said plans for emergency shelters are changing, too.
While Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines will be followed and temperatures will be taken, those coming in won’t be tested for COVID-19, Woodard said.
“With testing taking a long time -- a day or several days to get results -- we plan on doing screening for temperatures and talking to people and determining if they’ve been exposed and are positive,” Woodard said.
He said the plan is to set up a separate area in a shelter for those who say they are positive. If they find there are many people with COVID-19 who require sheltering, the city might consider opening a shelter just for those with COVID-19.
“For this event right now, there are no plans and no need to open shelters because this verifies as a rain event with a minimal impact to Florida,” Woodard said.
The Red Cross is also making changes since this year’s storm season is very different because of COVID-19.
“Definitely a lot of changes happening. We’ve been planning for this eventuality since we went into the pandemic. We know that social distancing requires more space. It also requires us to have more people,” said Gerald Thomas, CEO of the American Red Cross North Florida Region.
During past storms, the city would open about seven shelters. But that number could be much higher this year in order to follow safety guidelines because of the virus.
That’s why the Red Cross has been working to bring in more volunteers just in case. Thomas said one of their concerns is older volunteers.
“Our primary concern is the safety of our workforce, and we want to make sure that we don’t put people in situations where they might be put into harm’s way. We’re definitely taking that into consideration and we’re looking to recruit a younger workforce, so they’re not in the most vulnerable category,” Thomas said. “We have PPE (personal protective equipment) available for those that choose to go in and work in the shelters.”
There has always been a push for people to know their evacuation zones. But this year, emergency leaders also want people to be aware that they may want to shelter in place. Instead of “know your zone,” emergency leaders want people to “know your code,” meaning is your house built to safety code?
“Understanding if your house was built up to current code or to older codes that may not afford as much protection. But if your home is up to code and is a good solid structure, under certain circumstances, we will recommend that people shelter in place at home,” Woodard said.