What Happens if Florida is the Cone of Uncertainty or Gets Hit with a Hurricane During the Pandemic?

The State of Florida is currently trying to figure out the daunting prospect of what it may mean to ask residents to evacuate for their safety during a storm after asking them to stay at home for the coronavirus. Hurricane Season officially kicked off on June 1st, and in the middle of a pandemic, the most difficult decision to ask residents to evacuate coastal cities becomes complicated by fears of contagion.

Temporarily moving in with a relative might expose older family members to the coronavirus. Friends might be wary of letting in evacuees from outside their quarantine bubble. People who might otherwise book a flight out of town worry about getting infected on a plane. And the more than 1.5 million Floridians who are out of work or may still be trying to play catch-up from not having an income for a few months might be unable to afford gas or a motel room.

What is left are emergency shelters, where hundreds of people usually crowd into school gymnasiums, share public bathrooms and line up for buffet-style meals.

The planning dilemma now facing emergency managers across the Southeast is how to provide residents advice that will seem somewhat contradictory and perhaps be confusing: Stay at home and remain socially distant from others to avoid contracting the coronavirus. But leave home — even if that means coming into closer contact with other people — to be safe during a dangerous hurricane.

The contradiction even exists amongst large federal agencies: In new storm guidelines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended small shelters of fewer than 50 people. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency acknowledged that big shelters “will still be necessary.”

Traditional school shelters will be unavoidable, at least in densely populated areas.

In Miami-Dade County for example, there are 81 shelters, the largest of which can usually accommodate up to 1,500 people. They are looking at ways to adapt the shelters to prevent virus spread: Setting aside 36 square feet per person, up from the usual 20 square feet; staggering meal times; emptying classrooms of furniture so they could be used for large families; grouping symptomatic people or those who have tested positive for the virus (or designate a specific shelter for those evacuees).

State agencies are also not relying on the availability of rapid testing to become widely available to reliably determine which evacuees are sick. Those entering shelters will have their temperatures taken and be asked questions about symptoms and exposure when they arrive.

Also, it will be challenging to find volunteers to work in the shelters alongside county employees. The state may assign its own workers or temporarily hire unemployed people. Florida has set aside 10 million masks for use during hurricanes, he added.

To send evacuees to other counties — out of the vulnerable Keys, for example — emergency managers might have to rent more buses so passengers can sit at a safe distance from each other. The State of Florida has even been talking to Uber and Lyft to possibly provide individual rides if needed.

After 2018’s storm, Florida ordered all nursing homes and assisted living facilities to install generators for cooling systems after as many as 12 people died from the sweltering heat in a Broward County nursing home during Hurricane Irma. Nursing homes in evacuation zones might have to send residents to facilities out of the storm’s path that have extra beds, she said, or to one of the various sites that have been set up recently to relieve overcrowded hospitals in the event of a Covid-19 surge.

After a storm, a host of other concerns would emerge. Amid the economic crisis, more people could need meals, perhaps for a week or more. And electricity would likely take longer to restore because utility crews would be working under unusual conditions.

Then there is the question of accommodations for storm workers. Gone would be the usual large tent cities for up to 2,000 workers with centralized cafeterias, showers and laundry. Instead, crews would have to stay in smaller staging areas that allow for social distancing but also result in less efficient replenishing of equipment, which would slow workers down. The things that will need to be done to keep folks safe from the virus will lead to inefficiencies in the ability to respond normally.