Hurricane season is already looming: Former Tropical Storm Arthur formed earlier this week in the Atlantic, and projections warn this could be an unusually active summer. But with the double whammy of hurricane threats and a global pandemic, South Florida isn't quite ready for the dangers that might arise.
As of now, leaders in Miami-Dade and Broward counties are finalizing hurricane preparedness strategies, but with the official June 1 onset of hurricane season just days away, their plans aren't yet ironed out.
The old traditions of hosting hurricane parties and inviting your cousins over to weather out the storm are not advisable in the COVID-19 era, and social-distancing concerns are keeping households isolated. Evacuees also might hesitate to drive to a relative's house upstate, fearing any potential exposure.
Given those concerns, Dr. Aileen Marty — an infectious-diseases professor at Florida International University, emergency preparedness expert, and member of the World Health Organization — says coronavirus might cause a greater demand for hurricane shelters.
"There's likely to be an increased need for shelters because people are less likely to shelter with their families," she says.
But evacuation shelters for high-risk zones come with their own problems, as emergency-management agencies must contend with protecting people from the storm while shielding them from the virus.
Miami-Dade Office of Emergency Management Director Frank Rollason tells New Times via email that depending on the size of an approaching storm, the county might open more evacuation centers than usual and provide occupants with 36 square feet of personal space — more than the normal requirement of 20 square feet — to allow for physical distancing.
But Marty says bringing people into a hurricane shelter poses several contamination risks if not done properly. Last week, she took part in a conference call with U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and other emergency-management experts to discuss how South Florida could take action.
"We talked about putting people in cohorts. People who are positive would be cohorted to a different shelter or group," Marty says. "But if one member of a household is positive and the others are negative — how do we cohort them? Are they incubating the virus? How do we test those people? In a hurricane situation, we don't have time for finesse."
Miami-Dade is considering using hotels as an option for shelters, according to Rollason, although that too comes with its own set of logistical problems, as emergency managers would have to figure out how to feed and monitor all of the occupants.
"'We have underutilized use of hotels.' That was one of my favorite answers to the problem when I first met with Rep. Mucarsel-Powell," Marty says, adding that hotels would allow for families to shelter safely while staying separated by household.
Broward County is also looking at the feasibility of using hotels as shelters but still intends to use its existing shelters, according to Rangel Guerrero, operations section manager for Broward's Emergency Management Division. Those shelters will have extra precautions, however.
"Individuals entering the evacuation center can expect to be screened for fever, cough, and shortness of breath. If evacuees have these symptoms, they should inform evacuation center staff when they arrive," Guerrero says. "You will be screened prior to entering the evacuation center and rescreened during your time there. If you show signs of illness, you may be separated into an isolation area away from other evacuees."
According to Guerrero, Broward's 2020 hurricane plans do not yet take into consideration the gravity of COVID-19's effects on a potential natural-disaster situation, although plans are in the works.
"With the exception of the ongoing COVID-19 considerations, we are as prepared as possible," he says.
Beginning in April, New Times reached out on several occasions to the Florida Division of Emergency Management for details on pandemic-era hurricane preparedness plans. The agency has yet to respond with concrete information. A spokesperson said they're "working on it" but could not speak at length about specifics.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have posted guidelines for how to stay safe while entering a disaster shelter. The agencies warn people in shelters to maintain a safe social distance but don't explain exactly how that would work in an emergency situation.
"Practice social distancing. Stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arms' length) from other people outside of your household," the CDC's disaster shelter guidelines say.
Mucarsel-Powell and other Florida legislators, including U.S. Reps. Donna Shalala and Charlie Crist, wrote a letter to FEMA this past Tuesday asking for an immediate release of its hurricane and shelter-readiness plan, which the agency eventually published.
In an email to New Times, Mucarsel-Powell says Florida will need more PPE and test kits than it has now — a daunting prospect in a hurricane scenario.
"I'm concerned about South Florida's ability to acquire these critical supplies during a hurricane emergency because the state is having enough trouble getting these supplies now," she says. "I've called on FEMA to focus on solutions to this supply chain and congregate shelter issue."
Marty says testing will pose yet another obstacle to sheltering. She hopes testing technology will improve before a major storm hits, although that's impossible to predict.
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Marty advocates for the use of antigen tests for COVID-19, which analyze a person's saliva for signs of the virus and produce results within 15 minutes. They're cheap, quick, and less invasive than a nasal swab. But they're not as accurate.
"The downside is that the only one under emergency use authorization by FDA is only 80 percent accurate. If we had a very good antigen test — a better test that's 90 or 95 percent sensitive — that's the way to go," Marty says. In the absence of that, she says, settling for 80 percent accuracy would be the most expedient way to proceed when people are entering shelters.
According to Marty, South Florida is far from unique in dealing with these conundrums. Questions of how best to prepare for natural disasters during the coronavirus outbreak are puzzling leaders the world over, and no one has nailed the solution.
If South Florida were hit by a major storm this year, "I think we would make do and hope for the best, but we're not in the ideal circumstance," Marty says. "We're still looking for the ideal solution, [but] nobody knows what the best solution is."