South Florida Prepares for Unique Hurricane Season
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — If Florida experiences the misfortune of a hurricane on top of an epidemic this year, the encounter will be unlike any previous confrontation with the powerful storms.
If you lose power, it may take longer to get it back. If your house is damaged, the in-person insurance adjuster could be replaced by a phone app that will allow you to send your insurance company photos of the damage. At shelters, workers will conduct health screenings and temperature checks.
The impact of COVID-19 will affect our experience of hurricanes across the board, from the recommended items in family supply kits to procedures at the National Hurricane Center’s bunker-like headquarters outside Miami. Early forecasts call for an above-average season, which runs June 1 to Nov. 30, which means there’s an increased chance of a landfall in Florida during a time of illness, economic hardship and social distancing.
Hurricane season has arrived during other times of national crisis. Hurricanes struck during World War II. A Category 3 hurricane hit southwestern Louisiana in the summer of 1918, the year Spanish flu began but before the disease’s deadly second wave in the fall. One of the strongest hurricanes on record hit the Florida Keys in the middle of the Great Depression, destroying the railroad through the Keys and killing more than 400 people.
“We’ve dealt with multiple disasters in the past,” said Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center, in an interview Friday. “This one’s different, but at the same time, I think with early planning and early preparedness you can do a lot.”
EXPECT LONGER POWER OUTAGES
Even hurricanes that barely brush South Florida can leave thousands without power. While Florida Power & Light Co. has improved its ability to turn the lights back on, this year there could be a longer wait.
The company has already instituted social-distancing procedures, requiring personal protection equipment, sanitation procedures and separate travel by employees, which can slow repair operations. And it expects difficulties in recruiting the brigades of out-of-state repair crews that had previously allowed the company to restore power fast.
“Are we going to be able to amass those kind of crews?” asked Bill Orlove, spokesman for FPL “Are they going to be able to travel to the state? What happens if they get to the state and they’re not healthy due to our screening process?”
As a result of these anticipated difficulties, he said, there’s a greater chance of extended outages.
“This season will be a season like no other, where we may be facing not only a hurricane but the pandemic,” he said. “We are still committed to doing what we need to do. Going into this season, we’re asking customers for their patience, knowing that they may need to be without power for a longer period of time due to circumstances that are, frankly, extraordinary.”
UBERS AND HOTELS TO REPLACE SHELTERS AND BUSES?
As hurricanes approach, coastal areas face evacuation orders because of the threat of storm surge, the violent, wind-driven increase in sea level that has historically caused the greatest loss of life. Hurricane shelters, refuges of last resort for people without other options, are located inland at designated South Florida public schools.
Discussions are underway with the Federal Emergency Management Agency about replacing or supplementing these with hotel rooms, due to the difficulties of maintaining social distancing at a typical shelter. And the buses that carry people fleeing the evacuation zones could be replaced by ride-sharing services such as Uber.
But if the primary shelters remain at public schools, there will certainly be changes. At Palm Beach County’s shelters, where each person is allotted at least 20 square feet of floor space, that amount is likely to increase to allow people to stay a safe distance apart, said Bill Johnson, Palm Beach County’s emergency management director.
Arriving at the shelter, each person will have to answer questions about their health and have their temperature taken. People suspected of having the disease will be cordoned off in their own section of the shelter. There will be masks and handwashing stations.
But he said no one should avoid a shelter for fear of being packed into an unhealthy environment. The county has ample space, as demonstrated during last year’s Hurricane Dorian, when 17,000 people showed up at facilities that could handle 55,000.
“We will make it safe for them to evacuate,” he said. “If they’re told to evacuate, they should evacuate because storm surge is the number-one killer in a hurricane. I wouldn’t be afraid of going to a shelter because we’re going to cram them in like sardines. That is not going to happen.”
At Broward County’s shelters, there will be similar screenings. But Tracy Jackson, Broward’s emergency management director, said the assumption will be that many people who pass the screenings could still carry the virus, so the shelters will see frequent cleanings and mandatory social distancing.
NEW ITEMS FOR YOUR HURRICANE KIT
As for supplies, the advice is different this year. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends putting supplies together extra early, considering the spotty availability of basic household products. And it recommends extra hand-sanitizer, cleaning supplies and at least two cloth face coverings per person.
As part of the measures to soften the economic blow of the epidemic, FEMA increased the grace period on premiums in the national flood insurance program from 30 days to 120 days, although anyone making a claim would have to pay their premium.
If there’s any damage to your home, you may not have to meet face-to-face with the insurance adjuster. FEMA has made available a phone app that can allow insurance companies to provide estimates without an in-person visit, technology that had previously been used to assist homeowners in inaccessible parts of the United States, said Cynthia DiVincenti, vice president of National Flood Services, which represents 30 large insurance companies.
“When the app is running, it can take photos and measurements and different information as the insured walks through their damaged property,” she said. “They can work up an estimate from that and not have to actually meet face to face, keeping all the social distancing in place.”
At the National Hurricane Center, which produces the predictions that govern evacuations and other preparations, plans are being made to keep the vital storm experts from getting sick as they do their jobs.
“We’re doing what we can internally to keep everybody safe because the country needs us in a hurricane,” said hurricane center director Graham. “We’re looking at social distancing. We’re looking at one-way hallways. We’re looking at having work stations moved to offices. We’re doing everything we can to keep people safe because you have to keep healthy here at the hurricane center to ensure that we can perform the mission.”
The official NOAA hurricane season forecast comes out in two weeks. Several forecasts from universities and private forecasting companies have already come out, uniformly calling for a busy season.
AccuWeather, the private weather service, revised its own forecast this week to increase the upper range of its hurricane estimate to 11, of which up it said up to six could be major hurricanes of at least Category 3 strength.
Hurricane scares have become seasonal events for South Florida, which has narrowly escaped direct hits from a series of powerful storms.
“South Florida’s had a lot of close scrapes with potentially catastrophic hurricanes over the last several seasons,” said Michael Brennan, branch chief of the National Hurricane Center’s hurricane specialist unit. “You could go all the way back to Matthew, certainly Irma, now Dorian. It’s just a reminder that in South Florida we’re always vulnerable to that type of impact from a Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane that could cause catastrophic damage.”
©2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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