How Would Texas Respond to a Hurricane in the Middle of COVID-19?

An outlook issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center forecasts a 60% chance of above-normal activity this hurricane season, with 13 to 19 named storms.

by Jesus Jimenez, The Dallas Morning News / May 29, 2020
Volunteer Rick Gilbert distributes American Red Cross blankets inside the "mega shelter" at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas on Aug. 28, 2017 after flooding from Hurricane Harvey displaced many residents throughout the Texas Gulf Coast. TNS/Rose Baca/Staff Photographer

(TNS) — While many weddings, birthdays and graduations have been put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters don’t wait.

Hurricane season officially kicks off June 1, and it could be a busy one — a season even further complicated in the middle of a pandemic.

An outlook issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center forecasts a 60% chance of above-normal activity this hurricane season, with 13 to 19 named storms. Of those storms, the center predicts six to 10 could become hurricanes, and three to six of those could be major hurricanes — Category 3 or greater.

The outlook predicts only overall activity, not where hurricanes are most likely to make landfall, but what happens if a hurricane were to strike the Texas coast in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic?

‘A lot more complicated’

A worst-case scenario would be a major hurricane hitting the coast in late October as cold and flu season begins and as cases of COVID-19 could see a second spike across the country, according to Dr. Thomas A. LaVeist, dean of Tulane University’s school of public health and tropical medicine.

“That could be devastating,” LaVeist said. “That will be a huge strain on resources.”

Ordering an evacuation is typically the to-go response during a major hurricane, but officials will have to weigh whether that is the best course during the COVID-19 crisis, LaVeist said.

“It’s not only the risk of the hurricane. It’s also the risk of the evacuation,” LaVeist said.

Those with underlying health conditions or caring for someone at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19 could be more reluctant to evacuate and choose to ride out a storm, LaVeist said.

“The complexity of the decision-making is going to be a lot more complicated,” LaVeist said.

For those who do choose to evacuate ahead of a storm, maintaining social distance would be a challenge if they go to a traditional hurricane shelter such as a convention center.

“How do you maintain a 6-foot perimeter around a person?” LaVeist said of traditional evacuation shelters. “I don’t know how that’s going to be feasible.”

‘Ready to respond’

Texas officials have been preparing for the worst-case scenario for weeks.

“We’re ready and prepared to handle it,” said Seth Christensen, spokesman for the Texas Division of Emergency Management. “Just because we’re in the middle of a large pandemic, TDEM is ready to respond.”

The state plans to follow guidelines set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in a document called the “COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance for the 2020 Hurricane Season.”

The plan details items to consider if a natural disaster should strike during the pandemic, such as maintaining social distance for evacuees.

Whereas during a normal evacuation, residents might seek refuge in a convention center, this plan suggests the use of hotels, motels and unused school dormitories.

“It’s going to look a little different than what they used to look like,” Christensen said. “Rather than going directly to these large sites where you have people in close proximity together.”

If evacuees did need to go to a large site, masks would be needed as well as extra cleaning of common areas, Christensen said.

FEMA’s plan also calls for supporting health screenings of staff and evacuees at facilities, and having COVID-19 isolation and medical care shelters. The plan also suggests triaging vulnerable populations into hotels, dorms or other places where they don’t have to mix with a lot of people.

Natural disaster-response typically involves setting up command centers, but FEMA’s plan encourages remote meetings as much as possible.

While these recommendations are vital, the plan can’t guarantee shelters will be able to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, FEMA admits. In some cases, staying at home may be the better option for individuals if a storm comes their way.

“Due to limited space as a result of COVID-19, public evacuation shelters may not be the safest choice for you and your family,” the plan says.

For those who do need to go to a public shelter, the plan suggests people bring hand sanitizers, cleaning materials, and masks or face coverings.

Preparing now

North Texans typically do not need to worry about activity in the tropics. Generally, in the past, wherever tropical storms or hurricanes have struck the Texas coast, they tend to dissipate and weaken into showers and thunderstorms by the time they reach Dallas-Fort Worth.

But often North Texas does deal with these storms in the form of sheltering evacuees and making resources available.

Rocky Vaz, director of the Dallas Office of Emergency Management, said Dallas will be ready.

“The city of Dallas continues to work with TDEM on sheltering protocols under the current social distancing [and] congregate sheltering recommendations in place,” Vaz said. “The city stands ready to assist in any sheltering needs that may come up as a result of a hurricane in the Texas coast.”

At a press conference in early May, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo urged residents in the Houston area to prepare by creating a hurricane preparedness kit, extending or buying flood insurance, and learning evacuation routes.

“If you were to evacuate, where would you go?” Hidalgo said. “Unfortunately, hurricane season doesn’t give us the courtesy of waiting until the COVID-19 crisis subsides. We must do everything we can to prepare together, and stay focused on working to be resilient.”

LaVeist said now more than ever residents, especially those who live in coastal areas, need to have an emergency kit prepared. LaVeist has two — one at home and one at this office.

“It’s always important,” LaVeist said. “But it’s even more important now.”

In an emergency kit, FEMA suggests having one gallon of water per person to last at least three days, a three-day supply of non-perishable food, a battery-powered or hand crank radio, a flashlight, a first aid kit, a whistle to signal for help, duct tape, garbage bags, plastic ties and other essential items — all stored in an airtight plastic bag.

LaVeist said having printed roadmaps is also smart.

A busy hurricane season

Several factors went into NOAA’s hurricane forecast. For one, an El Niño climate pattern, characterized by above-average temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, is not expected this year, according to NOAA. El Niños typically temper hurricane activity.

Sea-surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea have been warmer than normal, which also increases the chance of a busier-than-normal hurricane season, according to NOAA.

“NOAA’s analysis of current and seasonal atmospheric conditions reveals a recipe for an active Atlantic hurricane season this year,” acting NOAA administrator Neil Jacobs said in a written statement. “Our skilled forecasters, coupled with upgrades to our computer models and observing technologies, will provide accurate and timely forecasts to protect life and property.”

Hurricane season officially runs from June 1 through the end of November, and activity normally peaks in August. But tropical activity got an early start this year when Tropical Storm Arthur formed off the coast of Florida on May 16. Arthur moved along the East Coast before veering off into the Atlantic Ocean and finally dissipating.

Then Tropical Storm Bertha made landfall on May 27 along the South Carolina coast.

Next on this year’s list of names for tropical storms are Cristobal, Dolly and Edouard.

Researchers from Colorado State University, which issues an annual hurricane forecast, also predict above-normal activity this hurricane season. The researchers predict 16 named storms, of which eight become hurricanes — four of them major hurricanes.

Unlike NOAA’s forecast, the Colorado State University report includes landfall probability. The forecast predicts there is a 44% chance of a major hurricane making landfall along the Gulf Coast somewhere between the Florida Panhandle and Brownsville.

One of the researchers who worked on the report, Michael Bell, associate professor in the CSU department of atmospheric science, said residents who live along the coast should always be prepared, no matter what the probabilities.

“It takes only one storm near you to make this an active season,” Bell said.

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