Virus adds challenges to hurricane readiness

Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Coastal Sussex area in October 2012. Photos courtesy of DEMA

In normal times, major weather-makers and acts of Mother Nature present logistical and other challenges to ensure public safety.
2020, of course, is not a normal year.

June’s arrival marked the official start to the Atlantic hurricane season, which arrived 2 ½ months into the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Hurricane season will almost certainly look a little different this year,” said Jeff Sands, community relations coordinator for the Delaware Emergency Management Agency. “COVID-19 poses a unique challenge for emergency managers and it is something we began planning for some time ago.”

Some potential changes include earlier evacuations and changes with sheltering.

“If individuals require assistance to leave an evacuation zone it will likely take longer, to account for social distancing practices, and could prompt earlier evacuation decisions. Sheltering has the potential to be most significantly affected,” said Mr. Sands.

“A complicating factor is that shelter capacity will need to be significantly reduced to facilitate social distancing and increased cleaning and sanitation stations will be required. We continue to look into alternate sheltering strategies, such as the use of hotels, which could assist with reducing the strain on tradition shelters. Our message to the public is that shelters are safe, and we will do everything in our power to ensure that they have a safe environment should they require it.”

Mr. Sands said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been hard at work developing new guidance for sheltering in light of COVID-19. It was distributed at the end of May. The state has a lengthy list of pre-designated shelter locations, which can be activated if required.

The forecast for the six-month hurricane season that officially got underway June 1 calls for an above-normal storm season. For the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting 13 to 19 named systems possible. Of those, six to 10 could become hurricanes, with three to six possibly reaching Category 3 strength or higher, according to NOAA’s May 21 forecast.

Typically, prior to the hurricane season DEMA works closely with local, state, federal, non-profit, and private organizations to prepare.

“Exercises are held to ensure that plans are still up to date and relevant. With COVID-19 many of these same partners have been working closely together for a number of months,” said Mr. Sands. “This is certainly a benefit and while COVID-19 may have prevented large-scale trainings, it has also helped to expand already close working relationships between partner agencies.

“We began coordinating with our partner organizations early into the COVID-19 response to begin planning efforts for hurricane season,” Mr. Sands said. “The Delaware National Guard would certainly play a major role in a hurricane response as they did during COVID-19. Local partners such as the three-county Emergency Management Agencies (of which Sussex County Emergency Operations Center is one) and the City of Wilmington Office of Emergency Management, would also play important roles. A common expression is that disasters are locally executed, state managed, and federally supported, and this is certainly true in Delaware.”

Above, Dewey Beach suffered severe flooding from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

In May, Sussex County issued its annual public alert to take heed and prepare for the hurricane season. Sussex County Emergency Operations Center, based in Georgetown, is stressing to the public the need to be ready ahead of the forecast. Preparation is critical to limiting damage and avoiding loss of life.

“Whether it’s a season of six or 16 storms, minor or major systems, the same message applies: be ready,” Sussex County EOC Director Joseph L. Thomas said. “The recent tornadoes here in Sussex County were a prime example of how even an isolated incident, such as a thunderstorm, can cause devastation and disruption. We cannot stop Mother Nature, but we can certainly put up our best defense.”

Mr. Sands echoes that.

“Being prepared is incredibly important and this is an area where Delawareans can assist us,” said Mr. Sands. “Everyone should make a plan for what they will do during an emergency, have an emergency kit, and have multiple methods of staying informed. Now is the time for families to make an emergency plan and consider where they might go should they need to evacuate.

“Delawareans should also consider adding additional cloth face coverings and hand sanitizer to their emergency kits should they need to evacuate. PrepareDE.org has some fantastic resources to help prepare for all types of emergencies.”

In downstate Delaware, one step residents can take ahead of hurricane season is to create a safety profile for their household with Sussex County’s free Smart911.com service to provide potentially critical, life-saving information up front to first responders. Profiles can contain as much or as little information as users want, including details about their properties, special medical conditions and family contacts.

The 2019 hurricane season was above average in the Atlantic. There were 18 named storms, including six hurricanes, three of which were major and caused billions of dollars in damage. Hurricane Dorian, which ravaged the Bahamas, was the most devastating.

Sussex County escaped the 2019 season with little effects from tropical weather. However, the lack of storm activity here last year is no reason to ignore the potential this season.

“I know it sounds like a broken record, but every year I remind people that all it takes is one. On top of the current health emergency, this is no time to let our guards down,” Mr. Thomas said. “Although Sussex County and the nation continue to wage war with this virus, we must also be ready to face another enemy in Mother Nature. We cannot lose sight that the tropical threat is still there, just as it is each season, and we have to plan and be prepared for that as well.”

“I’m not sure that there are any new issues that exist during a pandemic such as COVID-19 but it is certainly a complicating factor,” said Mr. Sands. “We continue to work closely with our partners to develop creative solutions to any problems that may arise and stand ready to help should a disaster strike.”


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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