Coronavirus meets hurricane season as Florida adds hotels, screening to its shelter plan
Miami Herald (FL)
Jun. 1--On June 1, coronavirus will meet hurricane season.
The six-month season, which has proven to be more suggestion than law as two (potentially three) named storms have formed ahead of the official start date this year, is expected to be an active one. NOAA calls for 13 to 19 named storms and six to 10 hurricanes.
If one of those storms tilts toward Florida, emergency managers must pivot from the stay-home messaging for the last few months of the coronavirus pandemic and convince people to leave their homes. That may be tough, now that hurricane shelters, the bastions of last-resort safety, represent everything epidemiologists warn against -- crowds of people gathered indoors for a lengthy period of time.
In a virtual round table earlier this month, Miami-Dade Emergency Manager Frank Rollason said the county plans to test everyone coming into a shelter for COVID-19 and separate people who are ill or have symptoms from healthy people in different parts of the shelter.
This week, he walked that back. In an email, he said the county plans to screen evacuees for symptoms, not test them.
That aligns with the state's recommendations. Jared Moskowitz, Florida's director of emergency management, said Thursday in a Cabinet meeting that Florida hopes to have access to rapid tests by August or September, and if it does "we will help supply rapid testing for people entering or exiting shelters."
Florida also has a substantial stock of personal protective equipment, "because we know that's gonna be a big issue for our shelters," Moskowitz said.
He said the state has 10 million masks, 5 million gloves, a million face shields, 5,000 thermometers, 200 negative-pressure machines and a deal cut with Honeywell for 12 million more masks.
Traditionally, evacuees are given 20 square feet of space inside a shelter. To aid in social distancing, Miami-Dade planned to expand that to 36 square feet per person. On Thursday, Moskowitz said the state is going even further and recommending 60 square feet per person.
To accommodate the new space demands, Miami-Dade plans to have 82 shelters available this season, compared to the 20 it opened for Hurricane Irma in 2017. Schools used as shelters will spread evacuees out to classrooms, rather than main spaces like basketball courts, to help with spacing.
In a press conference on Monday, Miami-Dade Mayor Gimenez said that gives the county the ability to shelter about 412,000 people. He also said that each evacuee will be given a kit with a mask, gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.
"If we need to open more sites, we will," he said.
The state Department of Emergency Management has also created an app for counties to use, which would allow people to pre-register for what is described as "non-congregant" sheltering at local hotels. The counties could decide how to use the hotels, which could help separate potentially COVID-positive people from others or protect people who are elderly or have underlying health conditions.
More than 200 hotels have signed up to be part of the program, and more will be signing up in the coming weeks, Moskowitz told the Miami Herald. The app was created in partnership with Salesforce.com, a California-based software company.
"That's a county-by-county decision on how they want to do that," he said. "My job is to make sure that they have the tools to do it. We'll make sure money doesn't become an issue to keeping people safe."
It's up to the counties to decide how early to open shelters, Moskowitz said, but in places like Miami-Dade with larger populations that may take longer to evacuate, expanding the evacuation window may be necessary.
Rollason said last week there are only 34 hotels within Miami-Dade County that don't fall within evacuation zones. Exterior balcony rooms can't be used, further diminishing the available stock of shelter rooms. The county is currently figuring out how many of those 34 hotels are built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane.
"We are checking them out," Rollason said.
At a press conference Friday kicking off the hurricane sales-tax holiday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said it's possible that by the time a hurricane hits, the risk of spreading COVID-19 cases could be much lower. He also said that some people may be safer staying at home during a hurricane "based on the construction of their home."
The virus "may not be as prevalent then," he said.
Forecasting with social distancing
The National Hurricane Center tracks every tropical cyclone in the world from its home base on Florida International University's campus. That hasn't changed this year, even with COVID.
"Our plan is to do everything it takes so that we're here to fulfill our mission," said NHC Director Ken Graham. "People count on us."
Inside the hurricane center, that means masks, spaced out desks, one-way hallways and a stepped-up cleaning regimen. Administrative staff largely work from home, but forecasters still track storms from the building, including the first couple of the season -- Arthur and Bertha.
"We're going to be there to do the job we do every hurricane season," said Michael Brennan, a senior hurricane specialist with the NHC.
Storm watchers will notice some new features to the NHC's website this year.
The first is maps showing storm surge risks along the coast and waterways. This information is normally provided in the text updates, but after experimenting with an "on the fly" map format last year, NHC decided to make it a more formal product.
Anything that can explain storm surge is helpful, Brennan said, because it's the deadliest impact of a storm. Storm surge and flooding-related deaths account for 88 percent of the death toll of hurricanes and tropical storms in the U.S., the Weather Channel reported.
"If you're asked to leave your home it's generally because of storm surge," he said.
The other update is a new time added to the standard forecast for a storm. Usually, the NHC map showing a storm's potential path involves predictions for the 12, 24, 36, 48 and 72 hour mark. Now, they're adding another point at the 60-hour mark.
But Graham cautions that the time to prepare for a hurricane is now, not when a storm is close enough for the NHC to release tracking maps.
A hurricane kit should include the usual suspects -- at least a three-day supply of perishable food, a gallon of water per person per day, medications, flashlights and a first aid kid -- as well as extra coronavirus supplies. Graham said the kits should now include masks, hand sanitizer and soap.
He suggests adding a few things for your hurricane kit onto upcoming grocery store runs or deliveries. It's a way to start stocking up slowly and be prepared before officials call for evacuations.
"Start early. Don't be part of that mad rush for supplies," he said. "We always say that, but it's more important than ever."
Floridians can purchase hurricane supplies tax free from May 29 to June 4.
Miami Herald reporters Mary Ellen Klas and Samantha J. Gross contributed to this report.