September 3, 2019 Savannah - Hundreds of local residents sit and wait inside the Savannah Civic Center to get a free transportation to inland shelters under mandatory evacuation ahead of Hurricane Dorian on Tuesday, September 3, 2019. Chatham Area Transit (CAT) provided free transportation to residents without private transportation to the Savannah Civic Center to assist in the mandatory evacuation of Chatham County. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Opinion: The prospect of fighting COVID-19 and a hurricane -- at the same time

I have a daughter who pays close attention to the weather.

The formal start of hurricane watching is still two weeks off, but a few days ago, she texted news of a first swirl of clouds off the South Carolina coast. The National Hurricane Center had taken notice.

We are about to find out what happens when you blend a pandemic with hurricane season, then serve the resulting meal with a side of bitter presidential politics and, for dessert, a tanking economy.

Not to be too glib about it, but my first thought was the cruel dilemma this poses for the contrarians among us. Do you hunker down, sealed in your house, because the hurricane experts tell you to flee? Or do you join the stampede toward high ground because pandemic experts advise you to shelter at home?

Suddenly, the matter of whose expertise a skeptic is obliged to flout becomes a complicated theological question.

In fact, the possibility of the two disasters combining is serious precisely because the cure for one is the mirror image of the cure for the other. Pandemics, when other solutions fail or are ignored, require motionless populations to defeat a virus.

Just last August, ahead of a Category 5 hurricane named Dorian that boasted 185 mile-an-hour winds, an estimated 110,000 residents of Chatham County fled north into South Carolina or west toward Atlanta.

If the same evacuation were repeated this summer, with the same crowded buses, shelters and hotels, the consequences could be dire — not just for the people on the move, but for their hosts as well.

Details are still being worked out at every level. But you have already heard many experts say that accurate, fast and widespread testing for COVID-19 is the essential tool that will allow us to return kids to the classroom and make public gatherings safer.

The same will apply to hurricane evacuations. Shelters will hold fewer people to allow more social distancing, and everyone will be tested for COVID-19 before they walk through the door, said Lisa Rodriguez-Presley, an external affairs supervisor for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

“That will help us determine if somebody is going to need to be isolated or not. That’s the main part of the plan,” she said.

But GEMA is headquartered in Atlanta. The situation becomes more granular the closer you get to blue water.

“Obviously, evacuating in a COVID environment is extremely complicated. It’s a process that we’ve been looking into for several weeks now – over a month,” said Dennis Jones, director of the Chatham County Emergency Management Agency.

The web of complication extends to shelters, hospitals, transportation, the availability of first responders, and access to masks, gloves and other personal protection equipment.

Chatham County is home to Savannah and its port, a key part of the state’s economy. Jones said he’s been working with GEMA and state public health officials, trying to develop protocols for coping with a hurricane and a plague at the same time.

More about that need for testing: Emergency management types won’t just need tests for those walking into shelters. Those fleeing a hurricane will need to know whether their welcoming hosts are infected.

“That’s part of the challenge of the evacuation – the destination of where we’re going to send people. Making sure the destination facility is safe for our citizens, as well as making sure the facility is safe from our citizens,” Jones said.

The good news is that, while hurricane season starts on June 1, mid-September is considered the peak. Jones hopes the testing situation will be resolved by then. “Testing is central. I have had conversations with my county health director on a daily basis for the last 60 days,” he said.

As the GEMA spokeswoman pointed out, shelters will contain fewer people, which means more will be needed, which will require more supervising personnel — all upping the cost even as local and state tax revenue nosedives. “When you look at trying to implement COVID protection measures during a hurricane threat, it taxes resources, it taxes staff,” Jones said.

He raised one more point that I hadn’t thought of: Emergency management headquarters are often claustrophobic affairs, with leadership packed into small offices or mobile units. Shifts of key employees occupy the same work stations.

In a world infected by COVID-19, that will need to change.

The situation becomes slightly more upbeat in north Florida. Leslie Chapman-Henderson is the president and CEO of the nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, a Tallahassee-based group that emphasizes the physical strengthening of homes – roofs, garage doors, and such — in advance of hurricanes and other disasters.

The group has always emphasized sheltering in place if possible during a hurricane, to reduce the strain on government and volunteer services. “This year, with COVID, we decided the self-sufficiency goal was going to be more important than ever,” she said.

In April, FLASH conducted a poll of residents in 10 states with hurricane histories, including Georgia. Sixty-six percent of those surveyed said the pandemic had made them more likely to prepare for a hurricane disaster. And 57% said a desire to maintain social distancing had caused them to keep a closer watch on the weather. And make sure their homes are up to snuff.

“People are telling us they’re listening more this year than they ever have before,” Chapman-Henderson said. “A woman said I’d been asking my husband to do X, Y, and Z for hurricane seasons, and this year, we’re getting it all done. They want to stay home.”

And there’s a realization that the last-minute dash to Home Depot or Lowe’s is no longer realistic. “Running out to get supplies and creating that big rush — people don’t want to be a part of that. They’re also pretty sure they won’t get what they want,” the FLASH president said.

Which means defeating an alliance of the coronavirus and a big-name hurricane will require at least two things: A whole lot of COVID-19 testing, and a whole lot of DIY.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.
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