As the coronavirus pandemic continues to create a national disaster, local emergency management departments have to prepare for the next potential natural disaster: hurricane season.
“I’ve started thinking about what will happen during hurricane season because how do you do social distancing in an emergency shelter?” said Sara Ruch, deputy emergency manager for James City County.
Hurricane season starts in June and there’s no prediction on what state the country will be in regarding the coronavirus. But if this season overlaps with the pandemic, procedures and funding could be impacted.
Ruch said the county is waiting for official guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which she expects will be different than during a normal hurricane season.
Despite James City County declaring a state of emergency on March 13, Ruch said she doesn’t expect many of their resources for hurricane season to be depleted.
“As of right now, we do not have any deficit or have changed our planning for hurricane season,” she said. “We still believe we’ll be able to support our community as we have in the past.”
While the pandemic is causing a shortage of medical supplies, such as personal protective equipment, Ruch said it hasn’t impacted many of the resources needed for hurricane season.
Each year the Emergency Management Department starts preparing for hurricane season in May by assessing what resources are needed where. For example, Ruch said they check to make sure there are enough generators in public buildings or that the county has a decent supply of fuel.
What might change the department’s operations is the current reliance on technology and electricity. Ruch said employees are currently working while following social distancing protocol so they’re separated while working from home. During a hurricane, staff would typically be in the same area together and able to connect regardless of technology access.
In regards to funding, Ruch said she doesn’t anticipate the county having any issues with disaster relief funding for the hurricane if they needed it. She said if it’s needed, James City County will probably request funding from the state and the federal government through FEMA which provides public assistance programs.
In a statement from FEMA, the organization said it is currently focused on responding to the coronavirus but it is also preparing and maintaining the organization’s readiness for other disasters and severe weather.
“Our Administrator has been very clear that one of our top priorities is protecting FEMA employees, and that includes ensuring staff take care of themselves and their families during this time in case they are needed to help response to multiple events,” FEMA officials wrote in an email.
The agency is also helping local, state and tribal communities to prepare for additional disasters while their focus is currently on the coronavirus.
Ruch said the county is currently pulling information for how much it has spent on personal protective equipment and the additional hours of those who have worked, but the process works more as a reimbursement and can take a while.
For the pandemic, Ruch said the public assistance program through FEMA has asked localities to submit information to them similarly to how a damage assessment is done after a hurricane. Ruch said this allows the locality to show what the community looks like and what needs to be addressed.
These damage assessments are scheduled to be submitted by mid-April in order to determine what funds have been suspended for the pandemic, she said.
Ryan Rogers, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service in Wakefield, said hurricane season starts June 1 and goes through the end of November.
“We’re preparing for it like it’s a regular hurricane season,” Rogers said. “We’ve got a lot of contingency plans in place to make sure we get the information out to the public.”
The NWS is currently operating 24/7 with full staff and is considered an essential service.
“A lot of the focus is on the virus so our focus is still on the weather and how it may impact that,” said Jeff Orrock, meteorologist-in-charge at the NWS Wakefield office. “We are keeping weather in the forefront of folks minds.”
Orrock said the NWS staff is providing weekly weather briefings to local agencies and conducting training sessions virtually. In fact, the hurricane information, mostly refresher training, just came out.
Should severe weather impact the NWS Wakefield office or the coronavirus gets worse, Rogers said the contingency plans include nearby weather forecast offices who can take over operations.
The information at NWS offices is computer-based and most of the data is uploaded to the Cloud, Orrock noted.
During Hurricane Florence, Orrock said the Morehead City office started to lose some communication so the Wakefield office helped them manage the weather service for a week.
NWS Wakefield also serves as a backup WFO for Raleigh, Orrock said, and if there is a long-term problem, they can send staff members as backup.
While a vast majority of actual hurricanes comes closer to the middle of the season, the last two weeks of August and the first two weeks of October, Rogers said he doesn’t want to give the wrong impression about the season.
“I don’t want to give the impression people should not pay attention in June,” he said, adding they expect 1 to 2 tropical storms this year. “Just because we typically see stuff, late August through September and into October, doesn’t mean the threat doesn’t exist prior to that.”
In terms of what people can do to prepare for hurricane season, Rogers said that might be one good thing about the coronavirus pandemic.
“A lot of people may have gotten familiar with stockpiling food and water,” he said, noting the supplies gathered during the coronavirus are similar to those one would use to prepare for a hurricane.
Orrock said the weather forecast will be released end of May and this year should be different in terms of supplies.
“Some of these resources may be a little more depleted,” Orrock added.
Orrock said people should have a stockpile of a least several gallons of water, batteries for flashlights and lights and even propane bottles in case you have to cook without electricity.
“I got an extra propane bottle in case I have to cook without electricity,” Orrock added.
Orrock said to also collect insurance information, titles and other important documents. He also suggested taking photos of your belongings, home, etc.
“Just think about the current situation now and you no longer have the power and no longer have the ability to get things,” Orrock said. “Be prepared to be in your home for a week without needing anything else.”
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