COVID-19 Pandemic Adds New Risks For Hurricane Evacuation Hotel rooms would be "ideal" for housing an overflow of evacuees from shelters practicing social distancing, but few towns have them lined up in the southeast, where coronavirus infections are raging.
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U.S. Disaster Response Scrambles To Protect People From Both Hurricanes And COVID-19

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U.S. Disaster Response Scrambles To Protect People From Both Hurricanes And COVID-19

U.S. Disaster Response Scrambles To Protect People From Both Hurricanes And COVID-19

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So how do you stay safe from a hurricane during a pandemic? This is a question millions of people across the Southeast are facing this year, and the stakes are even higher for those who depend on public shelters. NPR's Abby Wendle has the story.

ABBY WENDLE, BYLINE: Freddie and Chester Davis drove six hours to family in Atlanta when Hurricane Michael headed towards their home on Florida's panhandle two years ago. But the couple say they don't have the budget for a trip like that now. If they have to evacuate, they'll go to a local shelter despite concerns about the coronavirus.

FREDDIE DAVIS: First of all, a lot of people don't understand how real this thing is.

CHESTER DAVIS: And I'm a diabetic, so...

WENDLE: The Davises - both in their 60s - say they'd bring their own masks and sheets and stay inside for as little time as possible.

C DAVIS: We want to make sure that we're only there during the time of the storm. After that, we would want to get out of there.

WENDLE: This hurricane season, safely sheltering people is, in part, a math problem. Many coastal states have longstanding shelter shortages, and that's being worsened by American Red Cross and CDC recommendations to give evacuees up to three times more personal space.

BILL JOHNSON: So, mathematically, my number drops dramatically.

WENDLE: Bill Johnson is the emergency management director for Palm Beach County, Fla. He says strictly following social distancing recommendations cuts his shelter capacity from 55,000 people to 16,000. To gain back space, he says he'll cluster family members and use classrooms and school hallways, as well as hotel rooms, a solution federal agencies are pushing. The CDC calls hotels ideal because they have private bathrooms. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency has offered to cover most of the cost. Florida seems to have made the most progress, with more than 500 hotels so far expressing interest in participating.

But emergency managers, including Johnson, have run into barriers. For starters, hotels often quickly fill up with evacuees who can afford rooms on their own. And Johnson says...

JOHNSON: Many hotels reside along the shoreline, which is, of course, in evacuation zones, and we're not going to use those hotels for sheltering.

WENDLE: While any additional space is welcome, Johnson says hotels won't go far towards solving his capacity problem. And despite Florida's progress, details like how many rooms will actually be available and who will get them remain unresolved. Other at-risk coastal communities, including Houston and counties in southern Alabama, are hesitant to enlist hotels partly because of concerns over the limits of FEMA's financial help.

BRYAN KOON: They are going to have to make these spending decisions in advance of being guaranteed that they'll get the money back from FEMA.

WENDLE: Bryan Koon is the former director at the Florida Division of Emergency Management and vice president of an emergency management consulting firm. He says, the way FEMA's reimbursement programs work, local governments have a right to be concerned. And, Koon says, while FEMA's financial support is a plus, it's not enough. Given the unprecedented challenges local governments face this year, he says FEMA should be doing more to help with the planning effort.

KOON: Normally, we say every disaster is local, and they need to come up with their own plans, and that's terrific, yes. But we, you know, could have benefited from a more collaborative effort to make sure that we're not leaving people behind in this situation.

WENDLE: In many scenarios, emergency managers could rely on traditional congregate shelters. Along with social distancing, CDC recommends shelters conduct health screenings and temperature checks, provide face coverings and isolate people with symptoms. Public health experts agree these steps will reduce risk. But Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine, says going to a shelter is still something of a gamble.

EMILY LANDON: Maybe the eating area isn't quite big enough, and you end up having to eat too close to other people, and they don't have their masks on, and you don't have your masks on because you're eating, and there's spread.

WENDLE: This year's hurricane season could see large evacuations. Climate change has made powerful storms more likely, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted a more active season. It's difficult to anticipate how that could translate into shelter demand. But with the economic crisis, some worry more people than ever could depend on public shelters.

Abby Wendle, NPR News.

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