If you’re a Floridian worried about hurricanes during a pandemic, rest assured you’re not alone. It should be comforting to know the Florida Division of Emergency Management is thinking a lot about it as well. These state emergency response experts are working to modify government guidance for counties that may need to handle a hurricane while COVID-19 is still requiring social distancing across the nation.
Under normal circumstances the answer to an evacuation order is obvious – get out of town! Florida municipalities have been rethinking the entire idea of evacuation for some storms during the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the changes they may be recommending is issuing shelter in place orders if:
After the wakeup call that was Hurricane Andrew, Florida building codes changed, resulting in sturdier houses better able to wear the high winds of hurricanes.
The worry is that evacuation could expose you to so many people and other dangers that you may actually be safer staying at home if your home is set up to weather a relatively mild storm.
It’s common to see large groups of people taking shelter in school gyms or stadiums during hurricanes – places with large, open areas that can shelter hundreds of people at once. During the coronavirus pandemic these large gatherings could turn into hotbeds of potential spread.
Florida disaster planners are working with hotels and other temporary housing providers to see if it would be possible to put evacuees up in hotels that are a safe distance from the storm.
The side benefit of this arrangement would be providing business for hotels that would otherwise be empty due to the storm. Coronavirus has taken an extraordinary toll on the hospitality industry, and evacuee guests paid for by the state may actually be a boon for empty hotels and motels.
It’s unclear whether this solution would be viable throughout the entire hurricane season. If stay at home orders are relaxed later in the season and things are closer to normal later in the year, the government may go back to using mass shelters. There are also ideas being floated about testing people going into shelters, and maybe even segregating shelters to separate people who are potentially sick from other people at the shelter.
Floridians do benefit a fair amount from the generous nature of their fellow American citizens. During disasters like hurricanes we can usually rely on good Samaritans flocking into the state to help provide relief.
Even the most generous people are now reticent to volunteer due to the specter of a potential coronavirus diagnosis. Getting COVID-19 wouldn’t just put the volunteer at risk, it could also hurt their families and communities back home.
Florida is taking this into account with their planning and are considering helping out-of-work Floridians by giving them part time employment in positions that would normally be filled by unpaid volunteers.
Emergency planners are also considering bringing Uber and Lyft drivers into the picture to help transport people rather than relying on mass transportation like they usually do. This, again, would provide some much-needed income to a segment of the economy that has been particularly hard hit by stay-at-home orders and social distancing.
Power outages are a nearly unavoidable part of hurricane landfalls. During most hurricane recovery efforts, utility workers for Florida Power & Light undertake herculean efforts to get power restored for hard-hit Florida residents.
There’s concern that both social distancing and the idea of housing evacuees in hotels could hinder the speed of power restoration. During most storms, utility workers are housed in nearby hotels so they can be quickly dispatched to repair damage to Florida utilities. That could become difficult if the utility companies are competing with evacuees for nearby rooms.
June, July and August usually don’t spawn the largest, most devastating Category 3 and Category 4 hurricanes. In fact, the last major hurricane to hit the U.S. early in the season was Hurricane Audrey, a Category 3 storm that landed in June 1957. Hurricane Dennis, also a Category 3 storm, landed just southeast of Pensacola in July 2005.
However, wind speed isn’t the only dangerous aspect of a hurricane, so every storm should be taken seriously, and evacuation orders should be heeded.
Probably not. If the local authorities are encouraging people in your area to evacuate you should still do so, but keep in mind social distancing and educate yourself on the available resources prior to heading out. The main difference for residents during the pandemic will likely be in the issuing of those evacuation orders. Unlike most years, blanket evacuation orders may simply not be given to all residents depending on their current shelter.