Searching for Best Practices: Hurricane Evacuations During a Pandemic

Focused evacuations and new sheltering options may help to lower risk.

Hurricane evacuations are chaotic under the best of circumstances. But the specter of evacuees trying to outrun a hurricane and a deadly bug sounds like something out of a dark Stephen King novel.

Why would I leave the safety of my home to mingle with unknown, potentially un-masked strangers in hotels and auditoriums who might be infected with Covid-19? Why expose my family to additional risk? I’ll just stay where I am and take my chances with the storm.”

Hurricane Dennis file image: NASA.

Which may be precisely what not to do with a major storm churning offshore. The calculus of how and when to evacuate inland is more complex than ever, as FEMA grapples with staffing shortfalls and a myriad of competing natural disasters around the nation. With NOAA predictions of an above-average storm count, this may be a hurricane season like no other.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has come up with a list of suggestions, recommending people give themselves more time than usual to prepare emergency food, water and medicine supplies this summer — and take extra precautions at public shelters. “The shelter location may be different due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so find out what’s available to you,” said Dennis Feltgen, Communications and Public Affairs Officer for the National Hurricane Center. “Make sure your ‘go-kit’ includes items that can help protect you and others from COVID-19, such as hand sanitizer, or if that’s not available, bar or liquid soap, and at least two cloth face coverings for each person who is at least two years old,” Feltgen clarified. Checking in on neighbors and friends? Be sure to follow social distancing recommendations, staying at least 6 feet apart.

But what if you’re evacuating to a school or even a hotel and you’re running a temperature, or you have a cough, or any number of different symptoms? Will local officials still admit you? Will you be segregated in a secure, isolated part of the shelter — away from others? How will families interact with sick parents or grandparents while away from home?

Example of GIS situational storm awareness, with weather API data powering a forecast of future road flooding potential in South Florida, courtesy of AerisWeather.

Marshall Flynn, Director of Information Systems and GIS for the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, is teaming with researchers to address the dual threat in two ways: reduce the number of evacuating citizens, which reduces the number of people congregating in shelters — and — rethink how sheltering the public can be accomplished, with the virus top of mind. “We can take advantage of focused, directional storm modeling instead of all-direction MOM surge models,” Flynn wrote in an e-mail. Relying on more granular, hyper-local inundation models reduces the percentage of population needing to evacuate. Building codes are another part of equation, says Flynn. “If you know your home is built to code, which includes strong-ties for roof, wind code windows or coverings, and wind code garage doors (to name a few), then you would be safe enough to stay home instead of clogging evacuation routes with others that have to evacuate.”

Threading this needle will require a measure of luck, good timing, great technology and a better understanding of how people factor risk before and during a major hurricane, with the virus impacting every decision in this complex matrix. The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council and the Emergency Operations Center is collaborating with researchers to gather data on public perception related to hurricane evacuations, with the goal of informing planners ahead of peak hurricane season. It is a work in progress. “By understanding the risk factors on evacuation decision-making, particularly related to COVID-19, this study will provide timely, quantifiable and actionable guidance to local governments, voluntary aid organizations, and emergency managers about how to plan/allocate resources for this summer’s hurricane peak, and future seasons with compounded risks,” wrote Dr. Jennifer Collins, Professor of Geosciences at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Flynn is focused not only on fine-tuning evacuation orders, but rethinking sheltering options. Besides the use of facemasks and other protective measures, the actual spacing and capacity inside shelters will have to be recalculated with virus in mind, he explained. “I have heard of creative sheltering spaces besides the usual schools,” he said. “One example could be the use of approved and willing hotels, and perhaps other community buildings out of harm’s way.”

Thinking outside the box, school or auditorium this hurricane season may be key to lowering risk from an inevitable parade of tropical systems, set against an anxious backdrop of virus concerns. Accurate hurricane predictions from NHC will be more mission-critical than ever. After working from home much of March and April, National Hurricane Center meteorologists are returning to headquarters in a phased reopening of the facility. Feltgen says that protocol has changed. “We must use hand sanitizer in the vestibule upon entering the building, wear a mask throughout the building, and if a person chooses, a face shield.” Hallway floors have taped arrows on them and forecast operations areas have distancing markers from workstations to reduce the risk of infection. “The public should know that NHC is ready for the 2020 hurricane season. But people living in areas (coastal and inland) who are vulnerable to hurricane impacts must do their part and be ready. We cannot put the season on pause.”

88 out of 92 (96%) major hurricane landfalls in the continental US have occurred in August-October. Graphic courtesy of Phil Klotzbach, Colorado State University.

Dr. Philip Klotzbach, a tropical researcher at Colorado State University has a rare ray of sunshine amid the gathering storm clouds of a potentially troubled hurricane season. “The odds of a major hurricane landfall occurring prior to 1 August are extremely low. Hopefully by then, while the pandemic will be ongoing, we will be in a much better place than we are currently.”

Image credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Local officials charged with making evacuation calls will need every quiet summer day in the tropics to fine-tune their plans, relying on high-resolution inundation models that require fewer people evacuating inland and new sheltering options, like hotels, that help to keep people physically-distanced for extended periods of time.

As always, success or failure ultimately rides on human nature. Despite best practices, updated CDC guidance, accurate warnings from the National Hurricane Center and timely, focused evacuation plans from local officials — at the end of the day — will the general public listen to trusted sources and follow instructions, with not only a hurricane, but a pandemic in mind?

We are about to find out.

- Paul Douglas is co-author of “Caring for Creation: An Evangelical’s Guide to Climate Change and a Healthy Environment”, and co-founder and Chief Meteorologist at AerisWeather, located in Minneapolis Minnesota.

Paul Douglas is a nationally-respected meteorologist, with 40 years of broadcast television and radio experience.

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