Hurricanes and COVID-19 in Florida: Are Counties Prepared to Protect Hurricane-Vulnerable Populations?

August 10, 2020 | 1:19 pm
Andrea Ramos & John L. Renne

Hurricane season is underway, and many counties in Florida, severely impacted by Hurricanes Irma (2017) and Michael (2018), may not be ready to protect lives. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this task becomes even more difficult, as evacuating during a pandemic places greater burdens on vulnerable populations. Since 2016, four major hurricanes have menaced the state, including Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm that tore through the Panhandle two years ago, and stronger ones are expected due to climate change. As hurricanes become stronger and potentially more destructive, statewide and nationwide research on planning for all types of disasters has evolved and contributed to better preparedness. This includes the implementation of efficient and more comprehensive emergency management systems.

How prepared are Florida counties to evacuate hurricane-vulnerable populations?

We are experts in hurricane preparedness with a special focus on vulnerable populations.  We evaluated the level of preparedness in emergency planning, preparedness, and evacuation efforts in the 67 counties in Florida as of November 2018. We focused specifically on populations with special needs, those who do not have access to a motor vehicle, and other vulnerable populations because they face significant barriers to self-evacuate to safety without assistance. Our research measured several components found in the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP), Local Mitigation Strategy (LMS) Plans, and emergency management websites from the 67 counties in Florida. We evaluated the degree to which county plans include registries and transportation for persons with special needs, pet evacuation, plans for pickup locations, consideration of multiple hazards, and evacuation maps.

Our analysis also examined how easily the public could access the county emergency evacuation information before a hurricane makes landfall in any county in the state. This study categorized the available plans utilizing an Evacuation Preparedness Rating System, which included six components identified as best practices in evacuation planning for carless, vulnerable, and special needs populations.

Most counties in Florida have a strong level of evacuation preparedness. Of the 67 counties sampled, 41 (61%, green in the map) had strong plans readily accessible online to emergency preparedness agencies and the public; 16 (24%, yellow) had moderate access to evacuation plans; and 10 (15%, in red) had weak or very limited access to evacuation information. Of the counties with moderate and weak access to evacuation preparedness information, most were grouped in the Florida Panhandle. The ten counties with weak accessibility are Holmes, Gulf, Liberty, Jefferson, Madison, Lafayette, Suwannee, Baker, Union and Bradford counties, all of them part of or close to the Panhandle.

Lesson from Hurricane Michael: increase the role of local government in disaster planning

On October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida Panhandle as the first Category 4 hurricane to hit this area. Michael was also the third most intense hurricane by pressure to make landfall, and fourth on maximum sustained winds on record in the continental U.S. Hurricane Michael was later upgraded to a Category 5, leaving a trail of catastrophe in the Panhandle.

The aftermath of Hurricane Michael showed that while rescue efforts, operations, and communications were up and running—preventing larger loss of life/property damage—it is critical for more local governments to get serious about disaster planning. This can only be successful through collaboration with federal and state authorities in planning effective and functional emergency evacuation plans in vulnerable counties.  It is also important to consider that financial and operational resources differ significantly within counties in Florida, creating more opportunities for state and federal authorities to support and assist local governments to establish more reliable emergency preparedness plans. Ultimately, providing resources for local governments to safely evacuate their residents, especially the most vulnerable who can remain stranded in harm’s way if no proper plan is in place, is the main goal.

Protecting people from the compound risks of COVID-19 and hurricanes

The impacts of extreme weather events like hurricanes—augmented by climate change— will be compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments at all levels will be hard-pressed to protect human lives from hurricanes while at the same time observing social distancing to prevent COVID-19 spread. For instance, providing protective equipment to staff and vulnerable populations during evacuations, and conducting rapid COVID-19 screenings and testing for symptomatic people become more challenging. In hurricane shelters, maintaining physical distance, enforcing handwashing, as well as the use of masks or face coverings, and frequent cleaning and disinfection of the most common areas are critical activities that become more difficult to do. Keeping people safe from both threats is especially challenging for vulnerable populations since evacuating during a pandemic places greater burdens on vulnerable people: these folks are more likely to be on buses or in group shelters, which puts them at higher risk to get COVID-19. Some need life-sustaining equipment or communication devices that often depend on electricity, while others need accessible transportation. While shelters do accept service animals, most do not accept pets.

COVID-19 poses a public health challenge that could be complicated by flooding due to storm surge in low-lying, flood-prone areas along the coast or near water bodies, rivers, streams or canals. Here’s a few things that households can do to prepare for both in Florida:

  • People should make plans ahead of time to evacuate if they live in areas that could be impacted by tidal storm surge. Evacuation plans should be made in advance to shelter with family or friends to avoid going to public shelters. If people need to evacuate to public shelters, they should come prepared with masks, sanitizer, soap, and anything else they need. They should not rely on the government to provide these items for them, although we do hope that shelters will be prepared with food, water and personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
  • People should “run from the water and hide from the wind.” Because of building construction and codes in Florida, people should seek to shelter in structures that are older than 1970 or newer than 2000. Building quality in general was better prior to the 1970s and after statewide building codes were adopted in the early 2002s. Sheltering in place is recommended for Category 3 and lower as long as it is not in a flood zone. We recommend evacuating for Category 4 and 5 storms.

Updated guidance on tropical storm pre-landfall and COVID-19 preparedness by the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) suggests that counties will “develop COVID-19 and Hurricane Response Plans specific to their jurisdiction” and in conjunction with county health departments. FDEM anticipates that activities such as opening shelters, screening evacuees, and redeploying resources away from COVID-19 response to hurricane response will be impacted. Decisions impacting these activities will fall to counties because by statute, Florida counties take the lead in all disaster response. Redeploying staff from COVID-19 testing sites to facilities assisting with hurricane response, for example will be at the discretion of counties. 

The compounding impacts of hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic demand strong preparedness planning to protect vulnerable populations from both threats.

For more details on our research, click here to read a summary of our methods, or scan the following bar code:

Andrea Ramos is pursuing her Ph.D. in Public Administration. Her research on evacuation preparedness in Florida with Dr. John L. Renne recently received national attention. She received a Bachelors of Science in Nursing from Florida Atlantic University and a Masters of Science in Public Health from the University of Miami. Her masters thesis, Evaluating the Emergency Preparedness and Response Plan for the People Experiencing Homelessness in Broward County, allowed her to examine the various emergency preparedness determinants for this population sub-group.

Dr. John L. Renne, AICP, is a professor of urban and regional planning at Florida Atlantic University, where he coordinates the undergraduate programs. He is a globally recognized expert in Transit Oriented Development (TOD), including sustainable and resilient cities, with a focus on land use and transportation planning and policy. He is an expert in evacuation planning and coined the term “carless evacuation” in 2005. Dr. Renne played a leadership role in the disaster recovery of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina.

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