This Disaster Season, ‘Everything Is Complicated by COVID-19’

By: - May 28, 2020 12:00 am

Volunteers assist evacuated residents at a temporary shelter this month after floodwaters displaced about 10,000 residents near Midland, Michigan. Beds were placed 6 feet apart, but officials say it’s complicated to deal with a natural disaster amid a pandemic. Carlos Osorio/The Associated Press

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If a hurricane bears down on Florida this summer, residents likely won’t be told to evacuate to the safety of a high school gymnasium or large civic building. Instead, they may be asked to download an app that assigns them to an open hotel room — a shelter from both the storm and the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak.

State officials have mapped out all of Florida’s 5,000 hotels, along with the wind rating of each facility and whether it has a generator on hand. So far, they’ve persuaded 200 hotels to sign up to serve as shelters; they’re aiming to reach 1,000. 

Meanwhile, the state plans to work with local restaurants and commercial kitchens to help supply packaged meals for evacuees, a shift from the buffet-style feeding operations typical of a disaster response. 

Across the country, as summer brings extreme weather to much of the United States, emergency planners are preparing for hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters amid the ongoing pandemic. The novel coronavirus has upended nearly every plan in the disaster response playbook.

“Everything, everything, everything is complicated by COVID-19,” said Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

By June 1, the official start of hurricane season, Moskowitz’s agency will have stockpiled 10 million masks, 1 million face shields and 5 million gloves. Those supplies will be held in reserve, to limit the exposure of first responders and evacuees in a disaster scenario. Displaced residents who arrive at a shelter may immediately be given a kit with personal protective equipment. Evacuations will look different as well. 

“If people need to evacuate, the state will provide resources to folks who cannot afford to do so,” Moskowitz said. “In the past it was buses, now it might be Uber or fuel cards.”

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Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.