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Florida starts hurricane season already on high alert because of COVID19

Monday, June 01, 2020

For the first time in memory, Florida is about to start hurricane season with its emergency operations center already up and running, and already at its highest alert level because of the coronavirus.

And the prospect of managing overlapping natural disasters has state and local officials, emergency managers, first responders, hospital executives, utility officials and restaurant and lodging executives in high anxiety mode.

They have been at the planning table for two months while simultaneously navigating the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re all here at the state Emergency Operations Center (EOC) because of the pandemic,” Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz said. “That has provided more opportunities for high level planning than in years past.”

The EOC was activated and placed on Level 1 when Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency on March 9, nine days after declaring a public health emergency after the state made public the first two cases of people in the state who contracted the coronavirus.

Level 1 is the highest level of activation of the State Emergency Response Team, and means the EOC is fully staffed around the clock. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season begins today and ends Nov. 30.

“We have a planning (team) here that does hurricane planning,” Moskowitz said. “We pulled them out of the COVID-19 response team and they have been planning for hurricane season ever since.”

The overlay of Florida’s hurricane season over a pandemic still in progress has gotten the attention of Floridians. According to a Sachs Media Group poll, about 51 percent of Floridians who responded to a Get Ready, Florida! survey said they were concerned while the rest felt no different at all.

“COVID-19 has created a very real, sustained sense of anxiety, and that’s even before the wild card of a major hurricane,” said Jay Neal, president and CEO of the FAIR Foundation and a Get Ready, Florida! partner.

“Add hurricane season to the uncertainty of the pandemic and you introduce another set of serious issues to worry about,” he added. (FAIR stands for Federal Association for Insurance Reform.)

Almost every facet of hurricane planning is affected by COVID-19, Moskowitz said.

“COVID-19 either complicates or adds additional layers to what we need to do,” he said. “New COVID-19 complicates everything else.”

Those concerns are compounded by the huge number of layoffs in the state, leaving 1.2 million unemployed and state revenue down by hundreds of millions per month.

Delays in getting unemployment checks and federal assistance don’t help either. People may not have the means to gas up their cars, rent a hotel room, or stock up on flashlights, batteries and canned goods if they have to shelter at home.

“We will be feeding a lot more people, with meals ready to eat, passing out bottled water,” Moskowitz said.

But having enough personal protective equipment will be a cinch, he said. While buying equipment for everyday needs, the state also has been stockpiling protective gear for hurricane season, he said.

Evacuations go hand in hand with shelter planning, Moskowitz said, explaining the guiding question has been: “How are we going to do mass congregate sheltering?”

County and city emergency planners have been discussing those issues since March, according to Casey Cook, executive director of the Florida City and County Management Association and legislative liaison for the Florida League of Cities.

“Every county and every city is having this conversation,” Cook said. “This has been on people’s radar for months.”

Solutions include limiting the number of people at county emergency operations centers to essential personnel only, scanning people’s temperatures at shelter entrances, requiring them to wear masks, and putting up separation curtains. “We have over 5,000 infrared scanning thermometers,” Moskowitz said.

They may even expand the space per person. Typically, people are allotted about 20 square feet of space in a shelter.

Emergency management officials have been talking about expanding that to 60, 80 or even 100 square feet per person — but that could mean fewer people could squeeze in.

State emergency managers have led conversations about alternatives to what’s called “non-congregate sheltering,” Moskowitz said, including putting older people, those who have underlying medical conditions, and those have tested positive for COVID-19 in hotels.

The state already has identified hotels to convert into temporary hospitals for patients, if necessary, Moskowitz said.

“Well, those same hotels could be used for evacuees,” he said. “Individual rooms already take care of the separation issue and newer hotels are built to code.”

The state has created an app that people can use to preregister at a hotel in case they have to evacuate, he said. Some 200 hotels have signed up for it, and more are being added each day.

Counties have discussed entering agreements with local hotels to provide shelter to specific, targeted groups. Volusia County Emergency Management Director James Judge has contracted with hotels to provide space for them.

“Shelter plans have been adjusted to ensure minimum social distancing guidelines can be maintained at all shelters,” Volusia County spokeswoman Kate Sark said. “Plans are also in place for additional sanitation and cleaning procedures at all shelters.”

All evacuees must wear masks, and the shelter will provide individual hand sanitizers and ensure that evacuees can maintain a high level of cleanliness, she said.

Transportation is another issue. When a county needed to evacuate large groups, the state would provide coach buses, Moskowitz said.

Counties are working with companies like Uber to provide that service and maintain social distancing, he said, which works great in urban areas like Broward County, Tampa and Miami, but not so much in rural areas like Levy County.

Utilities also face challenges during recovery, in the aftermath of a hurricane when millions are without power. They fear they won’t see the same level of mutual aid support as they did during Hurricanes Matthew, Michael and Dorian.

“There will be delays in restoring power,” Moskowitz said. The state has bought generators for that very reason, he said.

Amy Zubaly, executive director of the Florida Municipal Electric Association, said her organization is making sure mutual aid crews adhere to social distancing and the highest health and safety standards.

“We have created guidelines to help maintain social distancing while crews are being brought in and briefed, for lodging of crews, for work assignments and even how to feed crews,” she said. “Furthermore, we have implemented additional cleaning and sanitizing protocols.”

The City of Tallahassee Utilities Department, for instance, has spent months discussing how to participate in mutual aid agreements safely, city utilities General Manager Rob McGarrah said.

For one thing, they won’t use the Jackson Bluff lot as a mustering site for all the guest linemen. Instead, they’ll divide them into groups of four and send them to four substations.

Also, the city will keep its own crews sheltered from the guest workers. “I think we have a good plan,” McGarrah said. “We are prepared as we can be to pull off a successful restoration.”

The biggest challenge is going to be shifting from telling people that home is the safest place to be during the coronavirus, but may not be the safest place during a hurricane, according to Moskowitz.

“We’re in a peculiar situation, that after three months of messaging, ‘don’t go out; shelter, shelter, shelter,’ now we’re going to say, ‘you have to leave,’ ” Moskowitz said.

If people’s lives “are in danger, we don’t want them to be afraid and not leave because of fear of COVID-19. We don’t want them to stay if they feel they don’t have a safe place to stay.”

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