Pandemic forces officials to rewrite hurricane prep playbook

As Gadsden County reels from the devastating impacts of COVID-19, another challenge looms for Gadsden Countians still grappling to get back on their feet: the 2020 North Atlantic Hurricane Season.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season officially began this past Monday, and experts predict a busier-than-average season, a scientific storm prophecy that already appears to be coming true, judging by activity in the warm waters off the east coast in the weeks leading up to the 2020 season. Weeks ahead of the official June 1 start date, the North Atlantic basin brewed up the first named storm of 2020: Tropical Storm Arthur, a short-lived cyclone born as a wave of low pressure along an old stationary front in the Florida Straits.

Arthur became an organized tropical depression off the coast of Florida, tracking northward and skirting the Carolina coast as a Tropical Storm with maximum sustained winds clocked at 39 mph. Though a comparative weakling by North Atlantic cyclone standards, Arthur nonetheless made history, becoming the earliest named storm to make landfall in the U.S. since standardized record-keeping began in the 19th century. Arthur’s mid-May formation is nothing new, however. 

Preseason storms were once a rarity, but as sea temperatures rise across the globe, the phenomenon is becoming ever more common; 2020 marks the sixth straight year a named storm has formed prior to the start of hurricane season. And the early season cyclonic fun continues. As of press time this past Tuesday, tropical depression three was slowly making its way westward across the Gulf of Mexico. 

Amid a global pandemic, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2020 season outlook is disconcerting, to say the least. The federal meteorological agency anticipates 13 to 19 named storms this season, of which six to 10 are likely to become hurricanes, including three to six “major” hurricanes (category 3 or higher). Though such forecasts have proven laughably incorrect in relatively recent memory, rapidly advancing computer simulation technology coupled with advancing research and greater insights into the mechanisms fueling global warming mean the annual prediction models are far more than mere guesses; the latest seasonal hurricane conclusions were reached with “70 percent confidence,” according to NOAA, with models becoming more accurate as the season drags on and Atlantic climate data is updated in the weather prediction supercomputers at the National Hurricane Center and various other agencies. 

Gadsden County’s 2020 disaster protocols to contrast starkly with those in years past

Tuesday, Gadsden County Board of County Commissioners Chair Anthony O. Viegbesie along with local Emergency Management Director Major Shawn Wood, informed county staff, local healthcare officials and community leaders that Gadsden County’s emergency management team is hard at work, setting plans in motion to prepare for what may prove to be a historic 2020 hurricane season, set in the harrowing backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic. In prepared remarks Tuesday, Viegbesie and Wood warned that assistance and provisions for Gadsden County residents will “look very different” from those in years past.

“Hurricane season 2020 has already begun. I know it is a hard topic to discuss, but we need to address it immediately so our County can be adequately prepared for this year’s hurricane season. It’s important that Gadsden County residents know that we are preparing for hurricane season while also responding to COVID-19,” Chairman Viegbesie said.

Due to contagion prevention protocols, there will be a “considerable decrease in the number of people staffing the county Emergency Operation Center (EOC)” this season, local officials said. Instead, there will be remote coordination sites where smaller groups can meet to coordinate specific types of tasks, therefore allowing the county to maintain social distancing guidelines and facilitate cleaning and other prevention measures. 

“In years past, the EOC has been staffed with approximately 20 emergency management employees and first responders ready to direct aid and provide assistance to county residents,” Major Wood said. “This year, however, only six employees will be allowed in the EOC while all other staff members work remotely.”

With dense crowds of people ill-advised and even prohibited by law in light of the highly contagious coronavirus currently rocking communities across the globe, hurricane shelters and other aid will be executed quite differently this year, as well. Gadsden County residents requiring special accommodations due to health issues, for instance, will have to follow different protocols in order to receive assistance, should a hurricane affect  our region this season.

 “Anyone that is special needs, on oxygen, requires electricity to run medical devices or things that require an individual to register for our special needs program can do so by visiting SNR.FLHealthResponse.com.  It is very important that our most vulnerable citizens register this year as we need to prepare for you to come to the special needs shelter. Again, you can register for our special needs program by going to SNR.FLHealthResponse.com or calling 850-875-8833.”

Hurricane shelters will be heavily modified, with a broad range of stringent health and safety procedures and restrictions in place.  “If, for some reason, you have a temperature or you are unable to go through the triage system, then we will find a different type of transport to a medical-type facility –  not a hospital, but a medical-type shelter for those individuals,” Major Wood explained.

The county’s overarching shelter plan has also been taken back to the drawing board. County shelters have traditionally been set up inside large, open cafeterias and gymnasiums at Gadsden County schools. But due to the ongoing risk of COVID-19 contagion, the previous sheltering plan is no longer safe in the current public health climate. The county is examining safer alternatives, potentially utilizing classrooms, designating some as “isolation rooms” to keep people separated into smaller groups with staggered feeding and service schedules aimed at keeping a tight lid on potential exposure to SARS-CoV-2019 – the coronavirus species responsible for the respiratory disease dubbed COVID-19, considered several times more contagious than influenza or the common cold. Before being admitted to a shelter, local storm refugees will have to go through a clinical triage with temperature checks and other key health screens, to try and thwart entry of the virus into heavily populated shelters altogether. 

Put simply, social distancing will be at the core of all emergency sheltering situations, Major Wood said, adding that “emergency officials will continue to develop plans to manage a pandemic in the face of a hurricane, should the instance arise.”

Editor Brian Dekle contributed to the preceding report.

Remember: Now is the time to prepare!

Download a free preparedness guide at floridadisaster.org/getaplan. 

Additional resources:

Gadsden County

  • Gadsden County Emergency Management: (850) 875-8688 or gcems@gadsdencountyfl.gov. 
  • Sign up for Gadsden County emergency alerts via text messaging: txt “AlertGadsden” to 888777

Jackson County

• Sign up for Jackson County’s emergency alert system: www.alertjackson.com

Jackson County Emergency Management Office: (850) 718-0007

• Register for Jackson County’s special needs registry: snr.floridadisaster.org/Signin?client=jackson

State of Florida

  • Florida Emergency Management Division/Disaster Info: (800) 342-3557 or floridadisaster.org/info
  • Lend a hand: volunteerflorida.org 
  • Florida Department of Financial Services: www.myfloridacfo.com.

National Weather Service / NOAA



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