It’s deep into the summer, and a massive hurricane looms off the Florida coast, threatening enormous destruction and widespread power blackouts. In normal times, in such a scenario, the orders would come down for millions of coastal residents: Evacuate.
But in the middle of a pandemic, the most consequential of disaster decisions becomes complicated by fears of contagion.
Temporarily moving in with a relative might expose older family members to the coronavirus. Friends might be wary of letting in evacuees from outside their quarantine bubble. People who might otherwise book a flight out of town worry about getting infected on a plane. And the more than 1.5 million Floridians who are out of work might be unable to afford gas or a motel room.
What is left are emergency shelters, where hundreds of people crowd into high school gymnasiums, share public bathrooms and line up for buffet-style meals.
This is the planning dilemma facing emergency managers across the Southeast before June 1, the official start of a hurricane season that meteorologists expect to be quite active. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has forecast as many as six storms rated Category 3 or higher. A named system, Tropical Storm Arthur, already formed in May.
If a big storm comes this summer, people in harm’s way may hear advice from authorities that is somewhat contradictory and perhaps confusing: Stay at home and remain socially distant from others to avoid contracting the coronavirus. But leave home — even if that means coming into closer contact with other people — to be safe during a dangerous hurricane.
“We’re going to need to get people out because that is the emergent threat,” said Jared Moskowitz, director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management. “We will undoubtedly have to balance the risks.”
Some people in India and Bangladesh resisted evacuations when a powerful cyclone struck last week. Communities in Michigan, after a river flooded and two dams were breached, and in Arkansas, after a tornado, recently struggled with how to safely shelter large numbers of people.
There is plenty of hurricane fatigue in Florida, which has endured hits or brushes with at least five hurricanes over the past four years, including Hurricane Irma in 2017, Hurricane Michael in 2018 and Hurricane Dorian in 2019. The prospect of another busy storm season felt exhausting even before the arrival of COVID-19, which has led to 50,000 cases and more than 2,000 deaths since the beginning of March.
A mild storm might not require many evacuations. People with newer homes built to withstand strong winds could be safer sheltering in place than leaving their homes, Moskowitz said, as long as they do not live in a low-lying area prone to storm surge.
But experts always prepare for the worst case: a behemoth storm riding up the entirety of the peninsula, or hitting a big city like Miami or Tampa directly. During Irma, which made landfall in the Florida Keys and moved north, some 350,000 people sought refuge in shelters.
In new storm guidelines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended small shelters of fewer than 50 people. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency acknowledged that big shelters “will still be necessary.”
To find alternatives where evacuees might be more spread out, Moskowitz’s team created a map of hotels — along with their wind rating and whether they have a power generator — that might be commandeered as shelters. The Division of Emergency Management also developed an app that counties could use to assign evacuees to those hotels.
Traditional school shelters will be unavoidable, at least in densely populated areas, said Frank Rollason, emergency management director for Miami-Dade County. Only 20 hotels in Miami-Dade are outside of a storm evacuation zone, he said, and many might be booked with guests evacuated from coastal hotels or with crews deployed in advance to restore electricity or phone service after the storm.
“We’re looking at those, but this is the eleventh hour,” Rollason said. “It’s a long shot.”
He has focused instead on how the county’s 81 shelters, the largest of which can usually accommodate up to 1,500 people, might adapt to prevent virus spread: Set aside 36 square feet per person, up from the usual 20 square feet. Stagger meal times. Empty classrooms of furniture so they could be used for large families, groups of symptomatic people or those who have tested positive for the virus. It may be possible to designate a specific shelter for those evacuees.
Rollason is not counting on rapid testing to become widely available to reliably determine which evacuees are sick. Those entering shelters will have their temperatures taken and be asked questions about symptoms and exposure when they arrive, he said — preferably indoors in some sort of anteroom so that they do not have to stand in line outside being pelted by rain.
“But they will come in,” Rollason said. “We’re not going to turn anyone away.”
Volunteers to work in the shelters alongside county employees would be difficult to come by. The state may assign its own workers or temporarily hire unemployed people, Moskowitz said. Florida has set aside 10 million masks for use during hurricanes, he added.
To send evacuees to other counties — out of the vulnerable Keys, for example — emergency managers might have to rent more buses so passengers can sit at a safe distance from each other. Moskowitz said the state is in talks with Uber to possibly provide individual rides if needed.
Florida ordered all nursing homes and assisted living facilities to install generators for cooling systems after as many as 12 people died from the sweltering heat in a Broward County nursing home during Hurricane Irma. Some homes with temporary generators were granted variances as they work toward installing permanent ones, but almost all are in at least basic compliance, said Mary Mayhew, who runs the Agency for Health Care Administration, which oversees long-term care facilities.
But nursing homes in evacuation zones might have to send residents to facilities out of the storm’s path that have extra beds, she said, or to one of the various sites that have been set up recently to relieve overcrowded hospitals in the event of a COVID-19 surge.
After a storm, a host of other concerns would emerge. Amid the economic crisis, more people could need meals, perhaps for a week or more. And electricity would likely take longer to restore because utility crews would be working under unusual conditions.
Duke Energy Florida sent crews to help restore power in South Carolina after a severe storm last month and found that the special fireproof face masks needed for virus protection in areas with fire hazards made workers hot and required them to take more water breaks, said Jason Cutliffe, the company’s storm director.
Then there is the question of accommodations for storm workers. Gone would be the usual large tent cities for up to 2,000 workers with centralized cafeterias, showers and laundry. Instead, crews would have to stay in smaller staging areas that allow for social distancing but also result in less efficient replenishing of equipment.
That slows workers down, said Eric Silagy, chief executive of Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest utility.
“The things that we’re going to have to do to keep folks safe from a virus will lead to inefficiencies in our ability to respond normally,” he said.
As it happens, the company dusted off its old pandemic plan last year after the human resources department suggested an update.
“But even our pandemic plan didn’t have a global pandemic component to it: interrupted supply chains globally and everybody sheltering in place and grounding the airlines,” he said. “I’m glad that we have it in place, but you have to adapt.”