Cape Cod, Mass., was mostly spared by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but every year as Atlantic Hurricane season approaches, residents and emergency responders brace for a big hurricane, what locals feel is inevitable.
This year is no different, and the coronavirus pandemic adds another layer of complexity to an already-complex scenario. A tourist town that resembles Florida in terms of the age of the population, the combination of the pandemic and a major storm would be a challenge of major proportions, but one they are preparing for.
A good portion of the population is over 65, a high-risk group for the coronavirus and the usual methods of evacuation and response, such as sheltering in a school gymnasium, in a hurricane could put these people in even more danger. Evacuation, sheltering and feeding the locals during a major storm would have to be done in a “non-congregate” manner.
That means spreading out evacuees, which presents another set of challenges, such as finding the space, keeping track of where everyone is and who might have coronavirus symptoms, and feeding everyone.
“Out here in the New England area, there is always a threat for hurricanes and for tropical storms every year,” said Andrew Platt, Barnstable County emergency preparedness specialist. “It’s always been a concern going into hurricane season if we’re going to have enough people to staff shelters. The coronavirus adds another layer of complexity.”
The Cape is used to using a regional approach to sheltering, mostly for smaller events like building fires or smaller storms. But a major hurricane this season would require a different approach.
“Putting a thousand people in a school gymnasium in the current environment is not something that’s going to be as doable as it was in the past,” Platt said. “So we have to adapt in a way that we’re able to spread out and use more facilities, use classrooms, hotels and motels, maybe.”
The problem with using hotels and motels is that during the middle of the summer, those dwellings may be full of tourists. Schools could be used by putting families in classrooms and other buildings.
“The challenge is making sure services like food and all that are spread out,” Platt said. He said one approach would be to stagger feeding times, such as they do in schools, so that maybe high-risk people would be given a box lunch in the dorm area or cafeteria and others would eat at different times.
Cleaning would be critical both during the sheltering and after. Partners such as the Red Cross would be counted on to use their registration systems to keep track of who is where, who has been fed and who might be exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus.
“We need to stockpile cleaning supplies, sanitizers in addition to identifying facilities,” Platt said. “A lot of this is going to rely on a pretty healthy screening system so we’re working with the local hospital and Red Cross to make sure we have adequate nursing staff and health-care staff to do preliminary screening. It’s going to be a challenge, but I think it’s doable with the proper preplanning.”
The hurricane season arrives, but usually later in the summer for the area, allowing officials to see what others are doing and how they are responding.
“Generally speaking, a lot of other areas in the country — the Gulf Coast, Florida — have already had storms, so we’re going to be able to see how their response worked and some of the adaptations they made,” Platt said. “No plan survives first contact with the enemy, and there’s always going to be something we’re not seeing now.”