Friday, December 8, 2023

Hurricane season provides a challenge for local shelters during a pandemic

Tropical Storm Isaias (WYDaily/Courtesy of the National Hurricane Center)
Tropical Storm Isaias (WYDaily/Courtesy of the National Hurricane Center)

Hurricane season is colliding with the coronavirus pandemic this year and that means shelter for natural disasters has become a little more complicated in the Historic Triangle.

While the area recovers from Tropical Storm Isaias last week, localities in the Historic Triangle are preparing new plans to shelter people during a potentially rough hurricane season while also protecting the public’s health.

There are a few hurricane shelters in York and James City counties that open based on necessity. The number of shelters operating depends on the impact of the natural disaster.

But the 2020 hurricane season is looking to make a potentially significant impact in the coming months, according to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

The season is already starting at a rapid pace of nine named storms so far with predictions for the busiest hurricane season on record.

Some residents will be looking for shelter when hurricanes hit the area and new procedures are requiring emergency management officials to consider social distancing and sanitizing efforts in addition to providing a safe location.

Gail Whittaker, York County’s spokeswoman, said the county provides shelters to the city of Poquoson in addition to York County, which means there could be a range of a few to a hundred people in the shelter.

To mitigate those numbers and protect public health, Whittaker said if a shelter opens then evacuees will be required to wear a mask and will be screened with temperature checks and surveys to determine a person’s potential exposure. A person determined to be a risk of exposure will be directed to a separate area of the shelter.

Sara Ruch, deputy coordinator of Emergency Management, said James City County is following the National Mass Care Strategy guidelines from FEMA.

The strategy lays out potential disaster scenarios in relation to the pandemic, such as a hurricane, and the best procedures to care for large groups of people. Traditional shelter space will be “reduced drastically” for social distancing, according to the guidelines.

To better prepare for the reduced capacity, localities need to find alternate options such as hotels, renovated facilities, or asking residents to shelter at home. 

Ruch said many James City County residents already shelter-in-place during natural disasters but when shelters are open, they do not exceed the set capacity.

“This goes along with the saying of ‘you run from water, hide from wind,’” she wrote in an email. “We are not as prone to widespread flooding like other Hampton Roads localities are. And flooding is the main reason people normally seek shelter.”

Ruch said the county is still developing a plan for providing additional shelter locations in the event of a natural disaster. The county sent out a survey to local hotels and timeshares to see what locations could provide assistance during a natural disaster and is also working with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management to see if a regional or state shelter could be opened in the event of a natural disaster.

However, she said the county will still be able to provide shelter in locations such as schools.

Ruch said the county is also trying to figure out how many residents might need shelter during a natural disaster with an online preregistration form. The form asks those who need shelter to enter their information so the county has a general idea of how many people to expect. Those without internet access can also register by calling 757-259-3100.

The Mass Care Strategy also advises localities to prepare for longer emergency assistance wait times because medical emergency assistance is also being used to help those impacted by the virus.

But Ruch said James City County is prepared for any burden on emergency assistance. James City County Fire and Police departments prepared with additional staff and personal protective equipment for the staff during Tropical Storm Isaias.

“As of right now, we have been able to meet all of our assistance calls that came in with the last hurricane,” she said. “Now obviously, if there was some sort of outbreak within these departments it would be an issue, but they’re operating with precautions to protect themselves.”

Ruch said the county is prepared to provide safe and adequate shelter in the case of an emergency, but she recommends families find alternate places to shelter. She recommends making a sheltering plan now, such as staying with family or friends, in order to avoid staying in a place with many people.

“This is not an ideal year for congregate mass sheltering,” she said. “We’re prepared, but families might want to consider alternates so they’re not exposing themselves in a large, congregate shelter.”

For more information on emergency preparedness and shelters, visit the Virginia Department of Emergency Management online.


Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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