SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. – As Florida reels from the devastating impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, another challenge is looming for residents still trying to get back on their feet: hurricane season.
Hurricane season officially begins June 1 and with more than a week to go, a tropical storm has already reared its head off the state’s east coast.
In a news conference Wednesday, Seminole County leaders assured residents that emergency management officials are setting plans in motion to prepare for hurricane season, but voiced an air of caution, warning that assistance and provisions for residents this season will look very different from years past.
“I know we don’t want to talk about it, but in the next two weeks is hurricane season so we certainly wanted to let you all now that we are preparing for hurricane season while responding to COVID-19,” said Alan Harris, Seminole County emergency manager. “Hurricane season this year will look quite a different than the past hurricane seasons.”
Harris said that in years past, the Emergency Operations Center has been staffed with 114 individuals ready to direct aid and provide assistance to county residents. This year, however, only 34 employees will be allowed in the EOC while all other staff members work remotely.
“That is a considerable decrease, and instead of bringing all the folks here into the Emergency Operations Center we will have remote coordination sites where smaller groups can meet to coordinate specific types of tasks,” Harris said. “This allows us to maintain our social distancing and also allows us to maintain enhanced cleaning services and things like that to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
County residents requiring special accommodations due to health conditions will also have to follow different protocols to receive assistance should a hurricane affect the region.
“Special needs (assistance) is going to be different this year,” Harris said. “We want to encourage anyone that is special needs, so anyone that is on oxygen, anyone that requires electricity to run medical devices, things like that to register for our special needs program. It is very important that you register this year as we need to prepare for you coming to the special needs shelter. You can register for our special needs program by going to prepareseminole.org.”
Anyone requiring evacuation in the face of a hurricane will now have to be screened for COVID-19 and will receive a temperature check before boarding any county-run evacuation transportation.
“If for some reason you have a temperature or you are unable to go through the triage system then we will find a different type of transport to a medical-type facility -- not a hospital, but a medical-type shelter for those individuals,” Harris said.
Hurricane shelters will also be heavily modified this season and will have many more health and safety precautions put into place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Our sheltering plan is also going to be very different, our shelters normally opened up in schools and were normally in large cafeterias and gymnasiums… obviously with social distancing that is not possible anymore so we are looking to utilize classrooms, isolation rooms to keep people separated into smaller groups, certain feeding times for individual groups inside of the shelter to minimize exposure of individuals to each other during the event,” Harris said. “Prior to entry into the shelter there will also be triage and temperature checks prior to even getting into the emergency shelter so quite a bit different than in the past.”
Social distancing will be at the core of all emergency sheltering situations and according to Harris, emergency officials will continue to develop plans to manage a pandemic in the face of a hurricane should the instance arise.
“I know it’s hard to think about that while we’re also responding to COVID-19 but I wanted everyone to know that we are considering those things and planning for those things - that is not out of our minds,” Harris said.