‘COVID twist’: Emergency officials prepare for pandemic-era hurricane season

Polk County

POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — This hurricane season, on top of the threat of a storm brewing in the tropics, Floridians have to consider gathering with strangers in a hurricane shelter amid a pandemic.

Emergency managers are tweaking their normal preparations.

“Getting ready for hurricane season with a COVID twist,” Polk County Emergency Management Director Paul Womble explained.

In a warehouse used to stockpile hurricane supplies, including water and meals ready to eat (MREs), he’s collected an emergency supply of pandemic-era staples.

“Half a million masks, hand sanitizer, dispensers for hand sanitizer, all those things that we’re still doing every day, we had to do that really in bulk,” he said.

The county spent roughly $80,000 in federal CARES Act funding for the stockpile. Womble and his team used shelter attendance statistics from Hurricane Irma to estimate how much to buy.

If evacuations are necessary this year, evacuees and shelter workers will have to wear masks, stay socially distant and get their temperatures checked.

“There’s plans if somebody presents – especially when the storm’s here and we’re locked down and you can’t move them out, get them care, whatever they need for treatment – to be able to isolate those people until it is safe to get them out,” he said.

Buffet-style catering, both in the shelters and at the Emergency Operations Center, will be replaced with individual meal packages.

More schools in the county’s inventory list will be used for shelters to accommodate social distancing and allow evacuees to spread out. The county has 47 shelters available in its inventory.

Womble emphasized that hurricane shelters should be used as a last resort.

Polk County has been hit hard by hurricanes in the past, including Hurricane Irma and the 2004 trifecta of storms: Hurricanes Charley, Francis and Jean.

People with homes threatened by high winds and floodwaters should evacuate and seek shelter, particularly people who live in mobile homes.

“It was one of the hardest things to come back from,” Warren Harasta told 8 On Your Side.

He moved to Lakeland Village Mobile Home Park after he lost his home and two vehicles in Hurricane Irma. The mobile home park has a history of minor flooding so he knows if a hurricane hit, he’d need to evacuate.

“That’s scary. I only have one lung so COVID-19 is pretty scary for me to begin with. If I had to go to a shelter, I’d hope everybody would follow the social distancing protocols and wear masks and wash and everything. When it’s that close, it’s hard,” he said.

More shelters will also mean more shelter workers. Womble tells 8 On Your Side he has been virtually training more than 500 school board employees to make sure they know the process.

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