FLORIDA—May 26, 2020—The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, which officially begins next week, presents officials and first responders with a unique set of challenges this year. Early forecasts are already expecting a more active than average season, with a higher probability that a major storm will make landfall in the U.S., but it’s the collision of the hurricane season with the COVID-19 pandemic that poses the greatest challenge. According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, nearly every aspect of hurricane preparation, response, and recovery will be impacted by COVID-19.
Hurricane preparation will likely be more challenging for many people due to both supply shortages and the economic crisis that has left many families with fewer financial resources for stocking up. Experts recommend beginning preparations as soon as possible and including extra cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and face masks in hurricane kits.
According to the Sun Sentinel, Florida Power and Light has warned that power outages could take longer to resolve this year. The company has implemented social distancing procedures, such as separate travel by employees and additional sanitation protocols, that will likely slow power restoration. In major outages, out-of-state crews are recruited to help, but this year that presents special challenges. Crews may not be able to travel together due to social distancing guidelines, and even if they do arrive, they may not pass health screenings to be able to work. Even storms that don’t make landfall often cause extensive power outages, and this year there’s a greater chance that these outages will be lengthy, so residents and restoration professionals should plan accordingly.
Evacuations and hurricane shelters present more hurricane preparation challenges from a social distance perspective. The Sun Sentinel reports that emergency management directors are already adjusting their plans. In Palm Beach County, each person will be allotted more space to allow for physical distancing. This means that fewer people can stay in each shelter, so discussions are underway with the Federal Emergency Management Agency about using hotel rooms to add capacity. Temperature checks and health questionnaires will also be performed upon arrival, and anyone thought to be a health risk will occupy a separate area of the shelter.
Despite all this, Bill Johnson, Palm Beach County’s emergency management director, says residents shouldn’t avoid a shelter out of fear of the virus. “We will make it safe for them to evacuate,” he said. “If they’re told to evacuate, they should evacuate because storm surge is the number-one killer in a hurricane.” The county is confident it has plenty of space to spread people out, and ride sharing services may replace buses to help with social distancing during the evacuation.
Following a storm, the procedures for working with insurance companies and restoration professionals will also be impacted by COVID-19 and social distancing considerations. For example, FEMA has provided an app that allows insurance adjusters to provide estimates without meeting face-to-face, according to the Sun Sentinel. And from the forecasters at the National Hurricane Center to the restoration professionals performing remediation and reconstruction weeks and months after the storm has passed, infection control, PPE, and social distancing guidelines will continue to be important in keeping those workers we depend on for storm preparedness and recovery safe and healthy enough to keep doing their jobs.