(TNS) - Orange County’s new emergency management division chief has her work cut out for her.
Lauraleigh Avery accepted the position on Monday at a time when COVID-19 cases are on the rise and the 2020 hurricane season is predicted to be an above-average year for tropical activity.
“This is going to be a unique year,” said Avery.
She’s the first woman to ever assume the role in Orange County and the first certified member to be promoted to the rank.
Avery’s role as the emergency management chief might be akin to being a tight rope walker balancing possible tropical storm threats with the reality and implications COVID-19 presents.
The 2020 hurricane season is predicted to have above average tropical activity this year between August and September. On top of that, COVID-19 cases in Orange County have surged in growth over the last two weeks.
“Clearly, handling the COVID outbreak on top of our hurricane activation is one of the most unique challenges. We are pushing the message to wear masks. That’s one of the challenges we’re having now. I think the quicker we get a handle on wearing those masks the better we will be positioned for hurricane season.”
Wearing masks isn’t just a message Avery and Orange County are sending the public, but also Orange’s employees as protecting its emergency personnel is one of its top priorities.
COVID-19 has already spread among crucial workers who would be working in the event of a storm.
Last week, the worlds of hurricane season and coronavirus collided at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Aircraft Operation Center where five members of its hurricane hunters team tested positive for COVID-19.
For safety reasons, hurricane hunters are not required to wear face masks on the aircraft in the event that an oxygen mask is needed. Although it is unclear if the workers contracted the virus from a flight mission.
Closer to home, the Orlando Fire Department had 28 firefighters test positive for COVID-19, and another 87 of its 560 member staff remain on the recommended two-week quarantine.
Keeping personnel safe in the event of a disaster is as important as keeping the public safe. COVID-19 didn’t change that, but it provided another hurtle. The Federal Emergency Management Agency published guidelines ahead of hurricane season to assist county leaders with how they can maximize safety standards among its personnel and citizens.
Orange County has taken a number of steps in compliance with FEMA’s guidelines in mobilizing its Emergency Operations Center, which is traditionally located at the Orange County Fire Rescue administration building and acts as a central nerve for Orange County officials, first responders, engineers and other community resource leaders in the event of a disaster. Community resource representatives include power companies, public transportation, theme parks, hotels and social services.
The center operates in a large room, big enough for dozens of representatives working in close proximity to each other for fast communication, but with COVID-19 ramping up in Central Florida the idea of many people working closely together presents a danger.
“The hot topic is social distancing,” Avery said.
Most agencies would send four to six people to operate at the EOC. This year, only one representative will be allowed, and anyone who can work from home will be asked to work in Orange’s new virtual platform where fast communication can be maintained.
Emergency personnel will be required to answer a series of questions asserting their positive health as well as a temperature check every day before working.
Since the start of COVID-19 Orange County has purchased and stockpiled millions of masks to keep its employees and first responders safe but also is working to distribute those masks to residents who are without.
“We are constantly looking at connecting people with masks and messaging that our guys are wearing masks at all times,” Avery said. “The last thing we want is for COVID-19 to be running rampant while a hurricane is coming. The only way we keep that under control is if everyone keeps wearing their masks.”
Coronavirus concerns and guidelines have also forced emergency planners to consider the extra time required in evacuating an area in the path of a storm full of residents with special needs such as an independent living facility.
Safety guidelines have also required Orange to double its prepared shelter options while keeping up with social distancing.
“We have 42 schools in Orange County that can be used if needed. We’re already prepared to double the amount of schools we usually used,” Avery said. “We’re limiting the amount of people we would otherwise put in one room, so of course we’re going to need more buildings should we need more room.”
Orange County will also be using available hotels should a large enough storm move toward Florida. In previous storms hotels have been traditionally used as shelters for those evacuating from coastal areas.
One side effect of coronavirus that could potentially affect residents during hurricane season was the cancellation of the annual hurricane expo where hurricane information guides and weather radios are distributed.
So instead, OCFR firefighters while out on call ask residents if they’re in need of a guide or radio and distribute it to them personally. Orange County crisis councilors are distributing weather radios, as well. The county has distributed 1,000 radios already.
Orange is also trying to notify resident of its “OCFL Alert” app which is a subscription-based app notifier that provides emergency information specific to a user’s neighborhood or area. The app has 20,000 subscribers, but the county is looking to increase the user base further is year, Avery said.
“Alerts could range from a ‘boil water notice’ to a curfew or an incoming hurricane,” Avery said. “We have a great community with strong partners, and we have a responsive alert system. There are so many avenues of information. We are strong here. Whether it’s a hurricane or COVID-19, we see the best of people during these times, and we’ll get through it.”
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