Tampa Bay leaders change hurricane plans in lieu of COVID-19

Posted at 6:42 PM, Apr 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-29 19:10:50-04

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. -- Hurricane season is just over a month away and COVID-19 concerns are changing the way emergency leaders are preparing for severe weather. For the first time, they are planning for potential hurricanes during a pandemic.

“Hurricanes do not wait for pandemics to end. Hurricane season is coming. We’ve seen bigger, stronger storms with each hurricane season and we need to be ready for it,” Amber Boulding in St. Petersburg’s Emergency Management Office explained.

Boulding says her biggest concern is making sure hurricane evacuees will have at least 6 feet of space to spread out in shelters as medical experts warn about a potential second wave of COVID-19 cases.

“If we are not prepared for a hurricane in the face of what we are dealing with right now, we potentially could have a recipe for more of a disaster,” she added.

One idea gaining traction is to use federal funds to rent out hotels where evacuees could spread out to individual rooms. Another idea is to use ride share services to transport evacuees instead of large buses.

Both Hillsborough and Pinellas County are also looking into additional shelter space at schools, which will enable them to open current shelters at 50% capacity, if need be.

National weather Service Meteorologist Dan Noah wonders if COVID-19 concerns could influence when, or if, people choose to evacuate.

“Evacuation is a tough thing because it’s a very personal decision and hard to determine how people will react,” he said.

Both Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties are also looking at requirements for masks and temperature checks to get into hurricane shelters…though they say it’s too soon to know if the requirements will be necessary.

Emergency Management teams are encouraging everyone to use shelters as a last option.

“Whether it is hurricane with COVID or without COVID-19 concerns, we always want people to try to find a place in a non-evacuation zone before looking at a shelter,” Ashley Johnson in Pinellas County’s Communications Office explained.

“Maybe a friend’s house that has a separate bedroom with a bathroom could be a good option so that you can reduce interaction,” Iñaki Rezola of Hillsborough County’s Emergency Management Office added.

County leaders stress in a year where Florida is expected to see an above average hurricane season, it’s best to start preparing now.

They encourage you to know your evacuation zone and start shopping for supplies, which may be in limited quantities in stores because of COVID-19 shortages.