Florida emergency managers are accustomed to planning for hurricanes. But as the June 1 start of the season grows closer and the state’s coronavirus outbreak lingers on, questions and uncertainties are nagging at the people preparing for the worst-case scenario.
Will a stretched-thin FEMA be ready to respond? What will shelters look like in the age of social distancing? And if shelters open ahead of a hurricane, will vulnerable people leave their homes?
“The biggest issue we’re facing is the sheltering of people in cramped-in areas,” said Frank Rollason, the director of emergency management for Miami-Dade County. “We’ve told people to stay away from each other for so long that if a hurricane comes and we need to open shelters, we’re fearful that they won’t come.
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“We know how to handle hurricanes,” Holness told the Miami Herald. “It’s this virus that’s devastating.”
Florida has been hit or narrowly edged by major storms in each of the past four years, including a direct hit to the Panhandle by Category 5 Hurricane Michael. And though state and local planners have for weeks been quietly studying how to navigate storm season amid a pandemic, Florida’s U.S. senators sent a letter to FEMA Director Peter Gaynor asking him to issue guidance to state and local governments about how they should prepare for a hurricane while social distancing measures are in place.
“With hurricanes, early planning and preparation is key, and while officials are currently focused on the pandemic, we must start thinking about June 1,” Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, both Republicans, wrote in a letter. “We ask that you take into account how to properly evacuate and shelter those who either have, or are suspected to have, the coronavirus in the event of a storm. Consistent and sound guidance will be crucial to saving lives during a natural disaster.”
Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said in an interview that he designated a team a month ago — as the coronavirus epidemic began to explode in Florida — to work on hurricane preparations. He said one of the key discussions ongoing with local governments is how to open school shelters should coronavirus continue to be a problem into the summer.