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COVID-19 Is Rewriting Plans For Hurricane Evacuation Shelters

Hurricane evacuation shelter
Wilson Sayre
In the past, evacuation shelters at capacity often provided little space for evacuees. With COVID-19, emergency managers are hoping to provide more space.

With a storm in the Atlantic pointed its way, South Florida could soon get its first real test of a hurricane season during a pandemic and one of the more difficult things to manage: evacuation shelters.

To try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in shelters, emergency operations chiefs say they’ve rewritten game plans.

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“I would say, as my daddy used to say, we're in pretty good shape for the shape we're in,” said Frank Rollason, Miami-Dade County’s operations director.

For starters, everyone will be screened by being asked basic questions about exposure and have their temperature checked. Those at risk will be separated. For those not sick or at risk, they’ll be allotted more space in gyms, libraries and other large facilities provided at schools where most shelters are staged.

Miami-Dade County’s 82 shelters won’t be able to meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that call for 60-square feet per person, Rollason said. That’s just not possible for the 112,000 spaces needed. But he said the county will double the space to a minimum of 36 square feet.

The county is also working on installing other protective measures, including dividers used at the county’s field hospitals.

“It's feasible to do,” he said. “The big thing is having the crews simultaneously at 20 locations.”

The county also hopes to install fans equipped with ultraviolet lights to help kill airborne virus particles.

Evacuees should bring their own supplies, but Rollason said shelters will also have a supply of masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.

“We have stocked up on a tremendous amount of PPE,” he said. “I've got over four million surgical masks in stock now, but it’s just been buying wherever I can find them. We got a lot of hand sanitizer. Wipes are hard to come by.”

Both Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties have also designated county employees to staff shelters.

In Miami-Dade, Red Cross volunteers who normally staff eight shelters will not be provided because the county can’t meet the CDC social distancing guidelines, Rollason said. Event staff who work Marlins Park, Hard Rock Stadium and other venues are also being hired to staff shelters.

“We've asked them for a thousand people,” Rollason said, but so far the contractor has come up short. “He says I don’t have a thousand. I said, hey, get me 500. You get me 250. It's what I don't have.”

Palm Beach County, which operates 17 shelters with a capacity of 50,000, should be able to meet CDC distancing guidelines by grouping families, said emergency management director Bill Johnson. That means every family member will get 20 square feet, with families spaced six feet from other families. Individuals will get 60 square feet.

“We're working on ways to maximize our space, yet as we add more square footage, you reduce your capacity,” he said.

By providing the space, the county will reduce its capacity to about 17,000. But Johnson said it’s unlikely the county would run out of space.

After county workers failed to show up to staff shelters during Dorian — after also failing to show up during Irma — the county docked them a week’s pay.

“I have my fingers crossed that we'll have staff available and that we won't be in the same situation,” Johnson said.

A bigger concern, both Johnson and Rollason say, is residents refusing to evacuate to shelters over concerns of exposure to the coronavirus.

“The risk of not evacuating if you live in an evacuation zone far outweighs the risk of getting Covid when we have implemented all the procedures and the mask wearing and the social distancing,” Johnson said. “The risk of being injured or in storm surge far outweighs the risks of being in a shelter.”

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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