As if COVID-19, an economic meltdown and soaring unemployment aren’t enough — Floridians need to brace for an above-normal hurricane season, according to forecasters with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
Just days into the season, which runs from June 1 through Nov. 30, Tropical Storm Cristobal swept into the Gulf Coast, triggering a storm surge of almost 6 feet along parts of the northern Gulf Coast, according to national weather reports. Heavy rain triggered flash flooding as far east as Florida, and as far north as Wisconsin and Minnesota. The storm also spawned tornadoes in Florida and as far north as Illinois.
That was the beginning of an Atlantic hurricane season that experts predict will have above-normal activity. Information released by NOAA says there’s a 60% chance of an above-normal season, a 30% chance of a near-normal season and a 10% chance of a below-normal season.
NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a range of 13 to 19 named storms, with winds of 39 mph or higher. Of those, six to 10 could become hurricanes, with winds of 74 mph or higher, including three to six hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5), with winds of 111 mph or more.
An average hurricane season produces 12 named storms, of which six become hurricanes, including three major hurricanes, according to NOAA, a division of the National Weather Service.
Concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19 — the deadly virus that has already claimed more than 3,400 lives across Florida — is causing emergency officials to plan differently this year.
Pasco County Emergency Management Director Andrew Fossa said the county will be working with the Department of Health that is maintaining a current list of COVID-positive patients, as well as people of interest.
Part of the county’s plan calls for using the center at Heritage Park, 5401 Land O’ Lakes Blvd., in Land O’ Lakes, to shelter positive COVID-19 patients, or people who have been exposed to the virus.
The county also will use schools as shelters, and will open them as they are needed.
This year, because of the pandemic, the county also has lined up some hotels and a resort, to use, if necessary, Fossa said. Some empty big box stores also might serve as shelters, he added.
“You’ve got to get creative in this kind of work,” he said.
The county needs to add more potential shelters this year because, in response to COVID-19, the American Red Cross and FEMA have changed the footprint required for sheltering.
“It used to be at general population, you were allocated 20 square feet, inside this big open area. That was your little slice of life. Now, with COVID, they made that 60 square feet,” Fossa said.
Shelter routines will be different
While waiting to register, those arriving will have to stay apart from each other, to maintain a safe social distance. Before entering the shelter, they will have their temperature taken, will be asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guideline questions and will be given a mask to wear in the shelter, Fossa said.
Anyone whose temperature exceeds 100.4 degrees F., will be sent to a different shelter, if time permits, or will remain at the shelter but will be housed in a separate part of the shelter.
Fossa said the county has secured enough personal protective equipment for county staff, nurses and firefighters that will be working at the shelters.
The county is uncertain how comfortable people will feel about staying at a shelter because of concerns about COVID-19. It has released a survey to try to get a better idea of where Pasco residents stand on that issue.
Fossa noted that AAA has done a survey in Florida and the results showed that 42% would not go to a shelter because of COVID-19.
The emergency management director also noted that the state has issued some guidance on whether people should evacuate.
“If you have a home that was built post-1996 and you’re not on the water, you’re not in an evacuation zone, the coastline or anything like that, they’re (state officials) actually encouraging residents to stay in their houses for a Category 1, maybe Category 2 (storm).”
Fossa urged residents who have not already prepared for a potential threat, to do so now.
“Be ready,” he said. “If you don’t have a go-kit yet, you’re behind the curve.
“If we need to evacuate you, I am not going to sit at your house for 45 minutes while you say, ‘I’m going to grab this, I’m going to grab that. I’m going to grab that.’ Have it ready to go,” Fossa said.
Those evacuating should “go 10s of miles, not 100s of miles,” Fossa added. “You can go 10s of miles to stay with family and friends.”
By staying close to home, residents can avoid getting stuck in miles of traffic jams and keep hotel rooms free for people who are evacuating from more vulnerable areas.
If you are ordered to evacuate, wait for emergency officials to let you know that it’s safe to return.
The county has a fleet of drones it can use to assess damage, Fossa said.
He also noted that the county has 28 generators, which it can use to temporarily restore power to traffic lights that have been knocked out by severe weather.
And, it is getting another generator that is large enough to power a small building, he said. The primary use for that generator would be to restore power to a nursing home — to avoid a tragic outcome like the one that occurred at a Hollywood, Florida, nursing home a few years back.
Pasco County also has had to plan differently for managing its Emergency Operations Center.
“We’re not going to be like Irma. I’m not going to have 120 bodies in my EOC,” Fossa said. Instead, there will be about 17 key personnel there.
“Everybody else will work virtually. That’s the safest way to do it,” Fossa said.
The county has a wealth of information available for residents who want to find out if they’re in an evacuation zone, how to prepare for a hurricane and what to do in the aftermath.
You can find that information at PascoEmergencyManagement.com.
THINGS TO DO NOW
Before a hurricane threatens
Protect your property:
- Be sure your trees and shrubs are trimmed.
- Clear out clogged rain gutters and downspouts.
- Document your valuables by making a list of the items, and taking photos of them and your property.
If a hurricane threatens
- Cover windows with pre-cut plywood or hurricane shutters.
- Store outdoor furniture, windchimes, garbage cans, decorations, potted plants and other items that could become projectiles in high winds.
- If you have a boat, determine how and where to secure it.
- Know your evacuation zone and be prepared to leave, if authorities tell you do so.
Particularly vulnerable areas include mobile homes, high-rise buildings, coastal areas, near rivers or inland waterways, and land below sea level.
- If you live in a mandatory evacuation zone, prepare an evacuation plan that includes transportation routes and destinations, and considers all family members and pets.
- If evacuating, reach out to family or friends, now, to see if you can stay with them. Whether you are sheltering in place, or evacuating, be sure to share your plans with someone outside of the danger zone.
- When making evacuation plans, think in terms of 10s of miles away, instead of 100s of miles. People have been known to leave their homes only to go where the hurricane landed.
Have a go bag ready
Your go bag should include:
- Important documents, in a waterproof container, which includes bank account records, marriage certificates or divorce decrees, driver’s license, Social Security card, passport, titles, deeds, income tax information, trusts, wills, insurance papers and birth certificates.
Some practical pointers
- Avoid gas lines: During hurricane season keep your tank full, or at least 3/4 full
- Have cash on hand, in case banks are closed and ATMs lose power
- Have a phone charger that doesn’t require electricity
- Have a printed list of important telephone numbers, including county emergency management office, evacuation sites, doctors, bank, area schools, veterinarian, etc.
- Have books and games available, to help pass the time
Stock up on emergency supplies
- Water — one gallon for each person for three to seven days
- Food — enough food for at least three to seven days. Nonperishable packaged or canned food and beverages, snack foods, juices. Supplies should include nonperishable foods that are easy to store and prepare, including protein bars, dried fruit, canned pastas, soups, canned tuna, peanut butter and jelly, crackers, raisins, beef jerky. Don’t forget the baby formula and baby food.
- Non-electric can opener, paper plates, plastic utensils, plastic cups
- Grill, cooking tools, fuel, charcoal
- Hand tools, automotive repair tools
- Duct tape and heavyweight garbage bags or plastic sheeting (for shelter-in-place)
- A wrench or pliers (to turn off utilities)
- Blankets, pillows, sleeping bags
- Sunscreen, aloe, bug spray
- Special items for babies, elders, persons with disabilities
- Toiletries, hygiene items and sanitary wipes
- Moist towelettes for sanitation
- Garbage bags and plastic ties (for personal sanitation)
- Radio — battery-operated or hand-cranked radio, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Weather radio
- Flashlight and batteries
- Medications, a first-aid kit
- Filter masks to protect your mouth and nose
- A whistle to signal for help
- Seasonal rain gear, sturdy shoes or boots
Plan for your pets
- Your pet emergency kit should include: Sturdy leashes, harnesses and/or a carrier; pet food, drinking water, bowls, cat litter, a litter pan; pet health records, current photos of your pets, in case they get lost; pet beds and toys.
DURING THE STORM
When sheltering in place
- Close all interior doors. Secure and brace exterior doors. Take refuge in a small interior closet, or hallway on the lowest level. Lie on the floor under a table or another sturdy object.
- Fill bathtubs or buckets with water to use for cleaning and toilet flushing.
- Stay away from windows and glass doors.
- Don’t be fooled by a lull in the storm. It could be the eye of the storm and the winds could resume.
AFTER THE STORM
- Do not drive into water when you can’t see the bottom of the road; you could drown.
- Do not walk through flooded areas, fast-moving water could carry you away. Also, the water could be contaminated with oil, gasoline, raw sewage and other contaminants. It also may be electrically charged from a downed wire.
- Be careful about the foods you eat. If the power is out for a prolonged period, your food may have spoiled.
- Do not burn charcoal in your house or garage, the fumes can be deadly.
- Do not use gas-powered generators indoors or in a garage, the exhaust can be lethal.
- If you’re using a generator, do not plug it into a building’s wiring. This can cause generator back feed, which is extremely dangerous for utility workers and for anyone in the public who comes into contact with a downed electrical wire.
- If you have been evacuated, do not return to your home until authorities tell you that it is safe to do so.
If you have damage
- Call your insurance agent.
- Take photos of the damage.
- Make emergency repairs to avoid more damage and keep receipts for tarps, lumber, etc.
- Use licensed contractors to make repairs. Be wary of potential scams.
Published July 1, 2020