Emergency response experts hope to expand the number of shelters and to minimize clustering this hurricane season in an effort to protect against COVID-19 and get schools up and running.
During The Southern Group’s virtual education conference, the former head of FEMA and the Florida Division of Emergency Management (DEM), Craig Fugate, shared how the global pandemic will affect school campuses, primary sheltering sites, during and after hurricanes.
“Anytime we move people from one area of the state to another, anytime we’re interacting with the public, all the things we’re going to see in a disaster, one person in the wrong circumstances spreading COVID-19 could cause a blowup,” Fugate said. “And in a disaster, it would be even worse because of the impacts to health care and other already stressed industries.”
To mitigate the virus’ spread and promote social distancing, experts are looking into more shelters with smaller capacities but larger footprints. That means more schools will be asked to convert into shelters in a disaster.
But with fewer total people allowed in public shelters, the key will be not turning people away, according to documents from FEMA, the Red Cross and the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster coalition.
One option, Fugate says, is to turn on FEMA’s Transitional Shelter Assistance, which puts people up in hotels and motels traditionally if it’s unsafe to return home after a disaster. Proactively opening stays in the lodging industry will reduce the demand on shelters and schools.
“We actually have, kind of an unusual situation, a lot of vacancies in hotels and motels across the state that would not normally be there during the peak of hurricane season,” he said. “So this seems to be a very viable option to be able to, at least for higher risk — particularly elderly, preexisting conditions or people who have had exposures — going straight to a hotel or motel. But I don’t think we get out of schools as primary shelters.”
Hurricane season technically begins June 1, but the first named storm has already come and gone.
One of the keys after any recovery is getting schools back open, Fugate said, now a consultant and chief emergency management officer at One Concern. Apart from getting campuses open, the pandemic necessitates getting communication online, too.
Following Hurricane Michael, the Panhandle suffered communication outages for weeks.
“This is one of the situations where just getting schools open won’t be enough,” Fugate said. “I think we also have to really emphasize how restoration of the digital infrastructure will impact getting students back online and classes back up if we’re still doing that.”
COVID-19 is changing the state’s hurricane response plans in other ways, too. DEM is preparing to do more contact tracing and testing during an evacuation and add masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to suggested hurricane kits.
“Wearing those masks is not a statement of freedom. It’s about courtesy and protecting others,” Fugate said. “It is the one thing that we could do now to help minimize or help reduce the spread.”