State and local emergency planners must rethink any task involved in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from storms that requires physical proximity to other people. First, there’s the question of evacuations. Even under normal circumstances, deciding whether to recommend or order an evacuation requires weighing the risks of riding out the storm against the risks of putting tens or even hundreds of thousands of people on the road at once. Now the potential for a viral outbreak at a storm shelter has to be factored into the equation. “It may come down to a governor or a mayor saying, ‘Okay, I’m either going to leave people in harm’s way because of this [pandemic], or I’m going to put them in harm’s way by asking them to go to the shelter,’” says Bryan Koon, a former emergency manager for Florida.
Depending on the storm’s severity, requiring everyone to stay at home may be safer than getting people out. Evacuation would pose a particular challenge for hospitals and assisted-care facilities, which may have to evacuate patients if they are damaged by a storm. This is a logistical challenge under any circumstances, but it will require significantly more planning, personnel, and resources if the facility is inundated with COVID-19 patients who must be isolated and possibly on ventilators.
Safely evacuating and sheltering people during a pandemic will likely require more space, transportation, and staff than in a typical year. State emergency managers are already considering securing more shelter space to allow for social distancing; testing or temperature checks and separate shelter spaces for those with COVID-19; or even using vacant hotels as shelter sites, rather than the traditional gyms or convention centers. As for physically moving people out of harm’s way, “Let’s say you would normally need 20 buses to evacuate people from an area that’s about to experience a hurricane. We might need 50 buses to make sure that those buses are not overcrowded,” according to Redlener.
Once emergency managers have revised their hurricane plans to account for the pandemic, they will have to communicate those new plans to the public. “I would start now with communicating to the public about how things may look different this hurricane season than they usually do,” Samantha Montano, an emergency-management professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, told me.
Even if the message gets out early, the public, fearful of contracting or spreading the coronavirus, may hesitate to follow evacuation orders or go to a hurricane shelter. “How do you tell people, ‘Okay, I know I’ve been telling you to stay home since March, but now you’ve got to get out’?” Bonnie Canal, the founder of the New Orleans nonprofit Evacuteer, which assists in evacuating vulnerable residents during natural disasters, told me.
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