The pandemic has raised several questions about hurricane preparations to keep people safe.
It's not like preparing a coastal community for hurricane season is an easy task under ordinary circumstances.
Add a global pandemic and a prediction for more storms than average to the list of concerns, and it gets even more complicated.
County and town emergency managers have been getting the word out for several weeks that the tropical weather season, which starts Monday, June 1 and runs through November, isn’t likely to be ordinary.
One of the biggest complications for the 2020 season is social distancing at Sarasota’s 11 hurricane shelters and Manatee’s 21, typically schools built to hurricane-shelter standards.
Sarasota County Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane said 20 square feet is allotted per person in a shelter under normal conditions. However, following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, that spacing could rise to 60-100 square feet each, which cuts capacity by about a third.
“How will we operate? How do we do that? So we’re working on that,” Longboat Key Fire Chief Paul Dezzi said, adding that the same considerations might have to be examined at the county emergency management command center.
Dezzi and McCrane both emphasized that shelters should be the last resort for evacuees. Longboat Key residents, along with residents of the area’s other barrier islands, are among the first to be ordered to evacuate when a storm threatens, often more than 36 hours in advance.
Dezzi said now is a good time to make arrangements or plans on where to go, provided the destination is outside of the evacuation area. And Dezzi said evacuees should ensure they have documentation to indicate they are a property owner, resident or business owner on the island, to ensure a smooth reentry after the all clear is given.
“[Find] a place to go besides your home, and that could a friend’s house somewhere inland,” Dezzi said. “It could be maybe you decide you’re going back up north, or maybe you have a family member up north or friends up north where you can leave prior to the storm getting here.”
McCrane said the state is trying to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on preparing to set aside hotel rooms or college dorm rooms for noncongregate shelter space as an alternative.
McCrane said residents accustomed to preparing a hurricane evacuation kit should add a few more items. Additionally, officials are looking at requiring screening at the door, enhanced sanitation and the use of masks in the shelters.
“Right now is a good opportunity to go buy those things and pack them,” McCrane said of masks and hand sanitizer. “Do not wait until the last minute.”
Aside from the social distancing concerns, Dezzi said this hurricane season is also notable for island residents who aren’t typically still in town this late in the year. COVID-19 hot spots in the Northeast and elsewhere have kept some winter residents here longer than normal, though that seems to be reversing, Dezzi said.
“We still have residents that have stayed, but we are beginning now to see, as cities are opening, we are seeing a few that are leaving,” Dezzi said.
The Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce annually holds one of its biggest events of the year about now, a hurricane preparedness event that features emergency-response experts and a selection of government agencies and merchants. Because of COVID-19, that plan had to be shelved, chamber President Gail Loefgren said.
“We’re talking about doing the disaster preparedness virtually,” she said. “We think it’s important this year because the shelters are going to change. If we have to evacuate, where do we go with social distancing?”
In 2019, the seminar heard from McCrane, Steve Litschauer and Joby Smith, the Bay County emergency services director who guided his area through the impact and recovery of Hurricane Michael in 2018, which caused more than $660 million in damage to his area. Smith drew comparisons between hard-hit Mexico Beach and Longboat Key.
Dezzi said one of the toughest challenges faced by the town is persuading everyone to evacuate when ordered. The town’s new Alert Longboat Key emergency notification system is networked with the county’s system now and will augment other forms of communication, such as the town’s social media accounts and public-address announcements made from police cruisers or fire rescue vehicles driving through neighborhoods.
“Do people all leave? No,” Dezzi said. “There are some people who are not going to leave regardless of what we say or do. And that concerns us because we — the fire and police — are the last people off the island.”
Police Chief Pete Cumming said that in general, the fire rescue department is tasked with getting evacuees off the island and the police with getting them back on the island.
A tiered system that permits critical personnel to cross the bridges into Longboat Key first is employed, Cumming said. That’s why it’s important to have paperwork ready.
“We monitor the reentry tier system,” Cumming said. “We have checkpoints. We check IDs and so forth. We work with all these other agencies just to get the island back up and running and safely.”
Observer staff writer Brynn Mechem contributed.