South Florida faces uncharted territory with the arrival of hurricane season amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
While there is always a degree of uncertainty with the track and landfall location of a hurricane, there is now the factor of social distancing and personal protective equipment distribution that must be accounted for in all aspects of hurricane preparation.
“The start of the hurricane season in the middle of a pandemic is a double policy whammy of high consequence for many stakeholders,” said Howard Frank, director of the Jorge M. Pérez Metropolitan Center.
Recently, the Metropolitan Center co-sponsored a discussion with the FIU Extreme Events Institute on the impact of COVID-19 on hurricane preparations in South Florida.
“We are in a slow onset, slow exit disaster — a global pandemic with national to local impacts,” said Richard Olson, director of the Extreme Events Institute and professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations. “Now, entering hurricane season for South Florida, we have the potential of a shock event inside the existing disaster.”
According to Olson, there are concerning implications for sheltering, resources, deployment, volunteers and travel, to name a few. Even if social distancing and other preventative measures are taken into account, there is also the factor of unemployed persons and how they may accumulate the supplies necessary for multiple weeks of inclement weather. Can they afford to evacuate? If they can, where will they go?
“It’s hard to predict public behavior in a situation with so many tension points, and now we have to add civil unrest, which may continue for a while,” said Olson.
Despite the muddied logistical waters, there are still natural constants that will withstand the effects of the coronavirus.
Pablo Santos, meteorologist at the National Weather Service Miami office, said that South Florida is looking good at the start of this hurricane season relative to past seasons.
“We should not be making correlations between what the season outlook is and the likelihood that you could get impacted locally by a hurricane or not,” said Santos. “We live in a climatologically-prone hurricane zone.”
Despite the lack of landfall of major hurricanes recently, the hurricane season must be taken seriously. When the storms make landfall, those who must evacuate but cannot afford to leave their home state will need to stay in a nearby shelter. Shelters, however, require that a large amount of people be packed into a single area, which goes against all established COVID-19 preventative measures.
Frank Rollason, director of the Miami-Dade Office of Emergency Management, says that Miami-Dade and other South Floridian counties are working on a solution.
“In Dade County we have 81 shelters which are schools […] and at any time depending on the intensity of the storm and the direction it’s coming from, we plan on opening up to 75 of those figuring that some of those will be in an area that we can’t occupy,” said Rollason. “What our plan is at the moment is that up to a category three, we will open up double the amount of shelters than we normally would, and that will allow us to double the space.”
In conjunction with the efforts from the Miami-Dade Office of Emergency Management, the American Red Cross has been assisting in training shelter workers in anticipation of the expansion of shelters.
“If needed — depending on the scope and the scale of the storm post-landfall — within 72 hours, we’re going to work with our emergency management partners to transition all the families and individuals into long-term shelters that are operated by the American Red Cross,” said Paula Prendergast, executive director of the American Red Cross Broward County. “These shelters will follow all [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines and we’re going to protect the safety of our clients and our workforce with that in mind.”
For all updates on Miami-Dade and the upcoming hurricane season, visit the Miami-Dade County Hurricane Guide. For more information regarding hurricanes and hurricane season, visit the FIU Department of Emergency Management’s page on hurricanes.
Watch the full discussion on how hurricane preparations in South Florida have been impacted by COVID-19 below.