ORLANDO, Fla. – Florida’s hurricane season is already proving to be an active one, with two named storms popping up during the coronavirus pandemic and before the official June 1 start of the season.
News 6 Chief Meteorologist Tom Sorrells spoke with Craig Fugate, the former director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management to see how emergency operations officials are adjusting their plans ahead of the official start of hurricane season.
Fugate says no matter what, people need to be prepared if a storm is headed their way.
“We got to keep hammering people in evacuation zones. COVID or no COVID, (people) will need to evacuate if a storm threatens," Fugate said.
Fugate expressed that those who aren’t in evacuation zones but still choose to evacuate can contribute to overcrowding of valuable shelter space.
“We’ve seen so many people evacuate that are not in an evacuation zone and that just adds to congestion in a normal year,” Fugate explained.
He said in the interest of social distancing, people should plan on when and how they choose to evacuate, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. He adds that families should also prepare their storm kits with additional items to fight COVID-19.
“The key point this year is you get ready for hurricane season,” he said. “And the additional part -- COVID-19 -- add mask, gloves and sanitizers to your kit.”
Lawmakers have been anticipating a change to emergency management plans as hurricane season approaches. It’s an additional task as they try to remedy Florida’s unemployment system and restore the economy while prioritizing public health as the state works to eliminate COVID-19.
“I think this is the thing that’s hard for people to wrap their heads around,” Fugate said about juggling the coronavirus along with public safety. “This is a novel virus. It’s never been detected in people before, we’re still learning about it. So as we go into hurricane season, what we do know is, evacuations may be required, the message doesn’t change -- you need to move to higher ground.”
Fugate says emergency management officials across the state are fine-tuning shelter operations to adjust for capacity and sheltering options.
“What we may see is more emphasis on hotels and motels, which unfortunately for Florida, are vacant because we’re not seeing tourism, but maybe a place for people during evacuations to go,” he said.
He added the size of shelters may be smaller than what the state has seen in the past, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fugate also believes there will be an increase in the number of shelters, but they’ll likely have smaller capacities to make it easier for people to keep their distance.
“We’ve been telling people to shelter in place, don’t go anywhere, minimize your exposure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and getting sick. If we’re not careful, I think we’re making too much about COVID and hurricane season,” he said. "FEMA, Red Cross and other groups have been working on this. They actually now have a mass care strategy for COVID-19 that they published so as we go into this, I wouldn’t worry as much about COVID-19 as making sure you have a hurricane plan.”
Fugate recognized that after millions of Floridians were left jobless in the wake of the pandemic, there could be additional financial stressors to preparing for storm season.
“Financially, there’s a lot of people that are broke, they’re not working,” he said. “I’m a little concerned, some folks who normally could evacuate may not even have money for gas. And that’s something I think local emergency managers to state are looking at. But I think we have to be very clear in a hurricane threat -- COVID or no COVID -- if you live in an evacuation zone, you evacuate.”
He says emergency management officials are factoring Florida’s current economic situation into consideration when developing adjusted plans for the pandemic. He believes they’ll choose to tap into industries that are familiar with communities for mutual benefit.
“The other part of this is for mass care operations is looking more to our hotels and motels but also our foodservice folks and hospitality industry,” he said. “If we’re moving volunteers all over the country, that’s going to be a challenge. But what if we put people to work in the communities that are impacted and higher than the cook and feed folks?"
He pointed to World Central Kitchen and Meals on Wheels as two organizations that have stepped up to do their part during the coronavirus pandemic and how they’re collaborating with local restaurants to help feed people.
“This goes back to this idea ‘buy local, hire local.’ In the 2020 hurricane season, that may actually be a better response because we can put people to work. We’ve got people right there, they know their communities. And we’re not going to have to move as many people to take care of folks if we’re able to do that.”
Ultimately, Fugate said it’s up to emergency management officials to adjust hurricane preparedness plans, and up to individuals to make sure they’re personally prepared.
“Again, I go into the hurricane season, everybody’s been telling me ‘Oh, it’s gonna be horrible.' You know, ‘How do you deal with hurricanes and COVID-19?’" he said. “Emergency managers don’t have that option. They’ve got to figure it out. And they’ve been working on this.”