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South Florida Emergency Bosses Prepare For A Hurricane Season With Coronavirus

South Florida communities could face the coronavirus pandemic and the impacts of hurricane season, including storm surge like from Hurricane Irma here in 2017
Eric Gay
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

It’s been more than a month since parts of South Florida began to shut down in the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Talks are under way about when and how to re-open parts of our community.

WLRN is here for you, even when life is unpredictable. Local journalists are working hard to keep you informed on the latest developments across South Florida. Please support this vital work. Become a WLRN member today. Thank you. 

Plus, hurricane season is six weeks away. The virus complicates what already is the difficult job of preparing for the threat of a natural disaster.

On the South Florida Roundup, host Tom Hudson was joined by the heads of emergency management from our area in South Florida to talk about the local response to the coronavirus pandemic: Tracy Jackson of Broward County; Bill Johnson of Palm Beach County; Frank Rollason of Miami-Dade County; and Shannon Weiner of Monroe County.

Here’s an excerpt of their conversation:

BILL JOHNSON: This pandemic has taught us a couple of lessons. One, we need to be prepared and we need to prepare all the time for any kind of disaster. So for hurricane season, you need to plan what you're gonna do.

TOM HUDSON: Has that plan changed, though, because of the virus?

JOHNSON: It might just a little bit, but I think we just have to be a little bit more creative. We're talking about June, July, maybe the earliest that we might need to open up a shelter if we had to. So by that time, hopefully we'll be into maybe for phase two, maybe even into phase three of our recovery of this pandemic. So I'm not sure that that we would need to be into the complete social distancing. I think we might have some rapid testing out there.

I don't know that I would say that I'm going to cut my shelter spacing into a third. We might be able to do some screenings and some temperature checks, and testing. So that if you're negative, we could put people in a little bit closer quarters. Or if you if you've already had it, where you have some immunity, it doesn't matter now, right? I'm not quite so concerned that we're gonna have to have people 100 feet apart.

Tracy, how do you how do you approach this in Broward County? The planning is underway now.

TRACY JACKSON: Bill said some very key things. He's talking about a phased approach to how we treat the people coming into the shelters. We know that the sheltering model works. What we're faced with is figuring out how to use that good model and perhaps modifying it to accommodate whatever situation we find ourselves in. In addition to those things, the team here is going so far as to think about using something that's called non-congregate sheltering, which is basically finding a way to isolate people who may be actively sick doing that type of a situation. Maybe some different spaces within a school where you could use to keep families together or people away from the general population of people.

So you could have, for instance, in a hurricane shelter, be that a school, a COVID-19 ward and then a healthy area?

JACKSON: We probably wouldn't call it that, but you get the basic idea. Because obviously, if they're showing up, we need to do something for them and we just need to use some wisdom and some data to be able to make those decisions on the ground. That's pretty wide at this point, but we really want to try to focus it in as we get closer to the season.

Shannon, the Keys are special for so many reasons. Hurricane season being a big one, though. Shelter-in-place has not been a big strategy in Monroe County in the past. It's been evacuation of visitors and tourists. And then the potential of evacuation of residents or for those that stay behind during a storm or as a storm threatens.

SHANNON WEINER: In Monroe County, we do open in-county shelters for tropical storms, a Category 1 or a low Category 2. And in those situations, I agree with both my partners in Broward and Palm Beach. We've talked about using health screening and triaging and using more spaces in those schools. The use of additional classrooms, cafeterias, libraries. They're a great resource for us to help with any level of social distancing or isolation that we might need. But Monroe County also does for Category, a high two or higher storm, we do partner with Miami-Dade County and FIU and utilize their spaces as shelters as well.

The transcript of this interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Alexander Gonzalez is a recent graduate of the University of Miami. He majored in English and was the the editor-in-chief of The Miami Hurricane newspaper from 2014-15. He was WLRN's digital intern during summer 2015. He subscribes to too many podcasts and can't get away from covering the arts in Miami.
In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.