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In Houston, Preparing For A Hurricane During A Pandemic

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to head to Texas now, which is facing a new threat amid the deadly pandemic. Last night, Hurricane Hanna made landfall on the Texas coast as a Category 1 hurricane. Earlier today, it was downgraded to a tropical storm. But the National Hurricane Center says life-threatening flooding remains a threat. And all of this is happening as Texas has become a coronavirus hotspot.

And this got us thinking about how a state prepares for a weather disaster during a global health crisis where keeping people at home and apart is one of the few strategies for containing it, so we've called up Nickea Bradley. She is the deputy director for emergency management for the city of Houston, and she's on the line with us now via Skype.

Ms. Bradley, thanks so much for joining us.

NICKEA BRADLEY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, can I just ask, what's the situation there?

BRADLEY: So our prayers are going out to anyone affected by Tropical Storm Hanna just south of us in Corpus Christi. It has moved on, is out of the state of Texas and moved into Mexico. But now, you know, damage assessment is happening right now, and that's in full swing.

MARTIN: Your reports aren't in yet from the hardest-hit areas. Is that what you're saying? It's still a situation in flux.

BRADLEY: Correct. Then that's what there - folks are out there now getting assessments.

MARTIN: So I imagine that you've also been working on coronavirus emergency management in addition to what would be your normal portfolio, right, which is severe weather. We've been facing this health crisis for some months now. Has that changed your approach to planning for this hurricane season?

BRADLEY: The coronavirus has changed a lot in how we practice, prepare everything. Our first responders are out every day wearing their masks, keeping their PPE close of, like, hand sanitizers, no-touch temperatures. Checks are happening as we all report to work daily. So it's changed a lot.

But in our planning process, we have an exercise that we do every year on, what would it be like to run a mega-shelter? Similar in Hurricane Harvey, we open the George R. Brown, and that's considered our mega-shelter here. So we decided this year, let's make sure that we're incorporating the CDC guidelines into how we're preparing for this year's active hurricane season.

MARTIN: Well...

BRADLEY: So...

MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, that's what I was going to ask. I mean, the fact is, I think most people who live in a zone where there are severe storms, you know, understand the fact that if your place isn't safe, if your place is prone to flooding, you've got to get to someplace safe. Usually, communities have, you know, places that people can go if they don't have a safe place to be. That involves big spaces with a lot of people, right - like stadiums...

BRADLEY: Correct.

MARTIN: ...Convention centers? So how do you manage that?

BRADLEY: So what we looked to do was add more shelters. We normally have a refuge of last resort. We also have, like I said, our mega-shelter, but incorporating those CDC guidelines.

So everything from when you get on a bus to evacuate, the number of buses that will be available will be more so that we can have people socially distance on the bus, requiring everyone to have a mask. You know, we have isolation and quarantine locations identified as well. So we try to think full-scale of how we can assist our residents, keep them safe but also keep them safe from COVID-19.

MARTIN: So do you feel ready? Do you mind if I put you on the spot here?

BRADLEY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Do you feel ready?

BRADLEY: I feel that we've done some - a lot of practice and preparation this year. We're as ready as we can get. I think what we saw with Hurricane Hanna just south of us was a test. We'll be looking for lessons learned even from yesterday's storm - what went well, what didn't go well, how were other jurisdictions helping to jump in response?

Governor Abbott sent Texas Department of Emergency Management down there to assist with being able to clean the shelters and keep them sanitized. So it was great to see other partners and even the state jump in to help right away knowing that COVID-19 is out there.

MARTIN: That was Nickea Bradley. She's the deputy director of the Office of Emergency Management in Houston, Texas. She was with us via Skype.

Ms. Bradley, thanks for joining us. I hope we'll talk again, and it won't be too terrible when we do.

BRADLEY: (Laughter) Agreed. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.