Emergency Managers Have Advice This Hurricane Season: Get Vaccinated
The pandemic complicates emergency prep for hurricanes, with plans to separate shelter evacuees and provide more space. Meantime, there's the worry people will ignore evacuation orders over COVID fears.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began taking a toll on Florida, managing more than 130 evacuation shelters across South Florida during hurricane season was a test of logistical acuity.
Aside from regular shelters for the general public, there are special needs shelters, shelters for sex offenders not allowed on school grounds, shelters for victims of domestic violence and shelters that allow pets.
With the pandemic, the increasing spread of the delta variant and a state mandate by Gov. Ron DeSantis that forbids vaccine requirements, the job gets exponentially more difficult.
“This year at least, we have the advantage that a large number of people in Miami-Dade County have been vaccinated,” said Frank Rollason, the county’s director of emergency management. “The down side of that is the most vulnerable communities are the ones that usually come to the shelters and they are still the ones that are at least vaccinated.”
In South Florida, only about half of residents are fully vaccinated, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rates range from a low in Monroe County of 40.9% to a high in Miami-Dade of 59.4%, as of Tuesday.
Rollason and other emergency managers are also facing a forecast of yet another above average hurricane season, the sixth in a row.
The season already got off to an early start when Ana formed in late May. The season tied the record for the busiest June on record and saw the earliest arrival of a fifth named storm. And that’s before the season historically begins to peak in mid-August.
Shelters are generally seen as a last resort for evacuees because they provide so little comfort. Emergency managers say staying with family or friends should is always a better choice. That means shelters tend to fill up with the neediest.
Studies done after Hurricane Katrina found shelter evacuees among the poorest, with six out of 10 earning less than $20,000. In North Carolina, 60% of people in shelters were unemployed. They are also among the least likely to be vaccinated, according to a March 2021 study that looked at COVID vaccination rates.
“The COVID virus is part of our lives, full stop,” said Broward emergency manager Tracy Jackson. “If we're going to take a bunch of people from a community that's just been ravaged by this public health emergency and we're going to potentially put those people in enclosed spaces in close proximity, it seems to us to be prudent to put some measures in there to help protect them.”
That means emergency managers are doing what they can.
In Broward, all evacuees will be told to wear masks, Jackson said. In Miami-Dade, where evacuees will be given a mask and limited supply of hand sanitizer, Rollason said he expects some will refuse the masks. He plans to separate those who wear masks and those who don’t. Shelters managers will also separate anyone with symptoms or a positive test. Families will be kept together, they say.
And after mass evacuations during Hurricane Irma overwhelmed shelters and supplies in 2017, Rollason said the county warehouse has been stockpiled.
“The warehouse is like a hospital with all the gear that we have. We have [personal protective equipment] and blankets and cots,” he said. “I've got [dog] crates and leashes and dog bowls and all that. I've got wheelchairs and walkers and bedpans.”
Having so many different categories of evacuees in shelters also means emergency managers will need to feed groups separately. Cafeteria workers at schools have a three-day supply of food on hand. After that runs out, Rollason said, Miami-Dade provides a four-day supply of dehydrated food.
Altogether, Miami-Dade has more than 80 shelters, Broward has 34 and Palm Beach County has 18. Monroe County uses Florida International University, near Florida’s Turnpike.
Miami-Dade can comfortably shelter about 112,000 people, Rollason said.
“If we have to do more, then you get to where you're almost standing up,” he said. “We also have the ability to commandeer government buildings aside from our regular shelters. And we have a list of those.”
Florida’s swelling population has increased the demand for space. The Tampa area, Southwest Florida and Central Florida still lack an adequate number of spaces, according to the state’s most recent emergency shelter plan. South Florida is in better shape, with more than 15,000 spaces to spare. But that’s without accounting for the extra social distancing space emergency managers plan to have in place.
"Instead of having 20 square feet, you'll have 40 to 50 square feet per person,” Rollason said.
More shelters will be opened if a storm takes direct aim at Miami-Dade, he said, but “we’re going to be tight.”
The state requires public schools to build hurricane-proof buildings that can be used for shelters. But Jackson and Rollason say the rule does not apply to charter schools, which now enroll more than 340,000 students statewide, leaving them scrambling to find more space.
“It's kind of, you have whatever you have,” Jackson said. “We don't have as big a footprint as we want.”
The increase has also put pressure on shelter volunteers. Miami-Dade requires county employees to staff hurricane shelters, but Jackson said Broward still looks for staff to volunteer. That’s left him chronically short-handed.
“The school board has also promised to supplement that staffing,” he said. “But we are still very much looking to gain additional volunteers.”
The bottom line with this hurricane season, they say, is be prepared like every season. But maybe a little more so.
“Having your own personal protective equipment, it's just our life right now,” Jackson said.
And if evacuations are issued, Rollason said, don’t let COVID be an excuse not to heed orders.
“So many people are saying that they are not going to come to a shelter that they would have [gone to] before because of COVID,” he said. “A large group of them are going to stay in their home even if there is an evacuation. And that’s our concern.”
That led emergency managers to add something extra to this year’s hurricane prep list for the public: get vaccinated.
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