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More Floridians could flock to shelters during a hurricane, emergency officials warn

 Hurricane Michael caused massive damage in Jackson County in 2018.
Tom Urban
News Service of Florida
Hurricane Michael caused massive damage in Jackson County in 2018.

An increased demand for shelter space is expected if hurricanes threaten Florida’s coastline in the upcoming storm season.

With COVID-19 protocols lifted, and people pinching pennies as inflation has hit a four-decade high, emergency-management officials anticipate people will opt for public shelters rather than drive to hotels hundreds of miles away when storms approach.

"I theorized that we're probably going to have more people because of the financial situations going on in the state," Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said of the anticipated uptick in demand for shelter space.

"We're prepared for that,” Guthrie continued. “The division has done some shelter-staff augmentation. So, if a county asks for assistance at their local shelter, we can … get individuals to go there. But I do believe we're going to have more people go to shelter this year."

To cut down on an over-reliance on shelters, Guthrie said people should make plans before storms about places they can go, such as staying at the homes of friends or relatives.

“Have in your plan, where am I going to go? Do I have friends and family that live within 10 to 20 miles of my evacuation zone, versus going hundreds of miles to a hotel or something along those lines,” Guthrie said.

The state is putting more emphasis on allowing local emergency officials to drive storm responses — based upon coordinated information between the state and National Hurricane Center.

Officials also are increasing their call for people to check property-insurance coverage as carriers drop policyholders and raise rates amid financial troubles in the industry. Lawmakers returned to Tallahassee on Monday for a special session to address the property-insurance troubles.

"We're wanting everybody to go out and do what we call an insurance checkup and make sure you have enough insurance to cover the rebuilding of your home, not just a bare-bones minimum package, make sure you have enough money to or enough insurance coverage to replace the contents," Guthrie said. “Those are things that we haven't necessarily said in the past. We're wanting to make sure we're amplifying that message now."

Meanwhile, researchers are projecting above-normal forecasts for the hurricane season, which starts June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

Allison Wing, an assistant professor in Florida State University’s Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science, said there might not be a direct link between the number of hurricanes and climate change. But she said the impacts of climate change are showing up with stronger storms that intensify rapidly to increase rainfall and decay more slowly after hitting shore.

“When you couple those changes, along with the increased buildup of coastal population and infrastructure … you have a picture in which even a garden-variety hurricane season would put us at more risk today than we were in the past,” Wing said.

While hurricane season formally begins June 1, a named system has developed before the start date in each of the past seven years. The National Hurricane Center has already started posting daily advisories on conditions across the Atlantic and throughout the Caribbean.

Charles Nyce, an associate professor of risk management and Insurance and associate director of the Center for Risk Management Education and Research at FSU, said the insurance industry in Florida might not be able to financially weather a series of direct hits.

“I'm, I don't want to sound alarm bells too much, but I don't think you can look at the current state of the private insurance market in the state of Florida and say it's good,” Nyce said. “It is a very fragile market that we have, extremely fragile. A really big storm or series of smaller storms will cause, I think, some significant problems in that private insurance market. And that's going to result in (state-backed) Citizens (Property Insurance Corp.) continuing to grow more and more, and put the state on the hook.”

Colorado State University researchers have predicted 19 named storms, with nine growing into hurricanes. Four of the hurricanes could have winds topping 111 mph, according to the experts.

AccuWeather has predicted 16 to 20 named storms, with six to eight becoming hurricanes. Four to six of the storms could directly impact the U.S., the prediction said. The forecast also gave a “high chance” of a system forming before June 1.

Between 1991 and 2020, the Atlantic averaged 14.4 storms a season, with an average of 7.2 reaching hurricane status and an average of 3.2 categorized as major storms.

The past two hurricane seasons have exhausted lists of storm names, with a record 30 named storms in 2020 and 21 named systems in 2021.

The predictions are based, in part, on a climatological phenomenon known as La Nina, which can limit vertical wind shear in the atmosphere. Researchers have also noted that while sea-surface temperatures across the eastern and central tropical Atlantic have been near average, Caribbean and subtropical Atlantic surface temperatures are warmer than normal.

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Jim Turner - News Service of Florida
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