Hurricane plans adapt to virus

Tom Burry, owner of Burry’s Ace Hardware in La Plaza Grande Shopping Center, prepares a shelf with supplies for hurricane season.

Get your bottled water, flashlights and weather radios ready.

Then find a face mask, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.

The list of supplies the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends people keep handy for the hurricane season, which starts June 1, highlights a need to be ready for a storm amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

And it’s possible for Mother Nature to whip up a natural disaster that coincides with the biological one.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s outlook for the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season anticipates an above-normal season with 13 to 19 named storms, including six to 10 hurricanes and three to six major hurricanes.

Following the agency’s release, AccuWeather revised an outlook issued in March to predict 14 to 20 named storms, including seven to 11 hurricanes and four to six major hurricanes.

In its forecast last month, Colorado State University expected 16 named storms, including eight hurricanes and four major hurricanes. Researchers expect to issue an updated prediction next week. .

But tropical activity is not bound by a six-month hurricane season.

This year marked the sixth consecutive hurricane season with at least one pre-season storm. So far there’s been two: Arthur and Bertha.

Preparing early is key to weathering any disaster, said David Casto, Sumter County’s emergency management director.

“People get anxious when they don’t take the measured approach,” he said. “If we try to make them prepared for any emergency, they’ll have everything they need for their family. It goes much smoother and better for everybody if they take the time to spread it all out and maintain that culture of preparedness.”

Busy season

Of the 14 to 20 storms that AccuWeather predicted for 2020, from four to six are likely to make a direct impact on the U.S., said Dan Kottlowski, senior meteorologist with the company.

Two things will control the season: whether water temperatures will remain warm in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, and the climate phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, he said.

Sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico concerned Dave Towle, senior forecaster with WVLG 102.7 FM & 640 AM.

“We’re well ahead of normal heating in the oceans,” said Towle, of the Village of LaBelle. “Those are the engines for hurricanes, that warm water.”

As for the climate, it’s currently in an ENSO-neutral phase. This means equatorial sea surface temperatures range from near to above average across the Pacific Ocean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center.

While the Climate Prediction Center expects those conditions to last through autumn, Kottlowski said he saw computer models showing climate patterns going toward a La Niña, when the Pacific’s sea-surface temperatures are cooler than normal.

During a La Niña, hurricanes are more likely to form because the conditions favor weak vertical wind shear, a difference in wind speed or direction at increasing heights in the atmosphere. If it’s high, the shear can rip hurricanes apart; if it’s low, it allows hurricanes to form.

“There’s less movement in the atmosphere to slow the development of the storms down,” Towle said.

New sheltering approach

Right now, the Florida Division of Emergency Management is looking into how communities should handle sheltering this hurricane season.

During a May 5 briefing,  state emergency management director Jared Moskowitz said his department is moving toward deploying “non-congregate shelters” in the event of a hurricane strike. This departs from prior hurricane seasons, when mass sheltering at places like schools were common.

Examples of non-congregate shelters include hotels, motels and dormitories, according to FEMA.

Hurricane shelters this season will operate a bit differently because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sumter County officials have announced that they will add shelter space to allow for social distancing and equip shelters with personal protective equipment for shelter occupants who do not have their own face mask, gloves, hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes.

The county will also encourage residents of site-built homes to remain there, rather than seek shelter elsewhere. Those who live in mobile homes, recreational vehicles or in flood-prone areas should attempt to find shelter with a friend or family member before coming to a community shelter.

“The old ways of putting as many people in a small space is probably not possible as we’ve done in the past,” Casto said. “We’re going to deal with any type of scenario any way we can and deal with the most threatening piece of it first.”

Sumter County Emergency Management shelter team workers will be trained in CDC guidelines and best hygiene practices.

In Lake County, emergency management officials are continuing to evaluate the situation and looking for more guidance from the state. The county may activate more shelters in case of a hurricane to promote social distancing, said Thomas Carpenter, Lake’s emergency management director.

He echoed the call for those who live in safe site-built homes to remain there and for others to consider sheltering with friends and family.

“Our shelters are safe, but should be a shelter of last resort,” Carpenter said.

Pandemic affects outreach

COVID-19 fears this year also curtailed traditional means of public outreach and training for hurricane readiness.

The Villages Public Safety Department canceled this year’s hurricane-preparedness expo, normally held in May. because of COVID-19. Instead, the department will work on issuing hurricane preparedness materials in the expo’s absence, though it’s not clear what form that will take, said Lt. John Longacre, the department’s emergency resource specialist.

Also canceled was the Governor’s Hurricane Conference, which would have run from May 17 to 22 in West Palm Beach. The conference is the nation’s largest and most-attended event centered on planning for and responding to hurricanes.

Casto said he typically does a working group meeting with staff from county government, the school district and the health department to discuss hurricane season readiness prior to the season. But COVID-19 forced its postponement.

New supply recommendations

The staples of emergency supply kits haven’t changed. State and federal leaders still suggest people stock at least seven days of food and water for each person in a household, have a weather alert radio, flashlights and extra batteries, and a first aid kit in case of a disaster.

Because of COVID-19,  FEMA now recommends people also stock face masks, soap, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes in their supply kits to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the flu.

Apart from the basic supplies, Towle also recommends having a person’s doctor’s phone numbers handy and ensure important paperwork such as birth certificates and insurance policies are stored in safe, dry locations.

Anyone who owns a generator should have it serviced as early as possible, he said.

“You don’t want to be taking it to the shop for a tuneup the day before a hurricane hits,” Towle said.

Given FEMA’s new disaster supply advice — and that stock of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes remains limited on many stores’ shelves — Casto recommended residents gather their emergency supplies early.

One advantage to this year’s preparations for the season is many Americans are already in emergency planning mode, Kottlowski said.

“We’ve had to buy food, we’re hunkered down and we’re vigilant about what our surroundings are,” he said. “It gives us an opportunity to think about, what do I do for hurricane season? What has changed about my surroundings and where I am?”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or Senior writer Steve Straehley contributed to this report.