As Tropical Storm Cristobal churns through the Gulf of Mexico en route to likely landfall Sunday in Louisiana or Texas, it carries on its winds a message for residents of the United States’ hurricane-prone coastlines that runs counter to everything they have been taught during the pandemic: If a dangerous storm is coming, leave home and seek refuge, with strangers if necessary.
But the hurricane season has just begun, and already there have been three named storms, including the one swirling above the warm Gulf waters right now that dumped a deluge of rain and caused deadly flooding in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The storms create a potential double threat this year, as those who would normally evacuate from a hurricane’s path now must weigh fleeing their safe environments and bunking in shelters with people who are potential carriers of the coronavirus.
Experts say it is a powder keg of risk and fear that could ultimately cost lives.
“A real concern is that people may not evacuate,” said W. Craig Fugate, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “We need to be clear about this: If you live in an evacuation zone and people say you need to evacuate, you move to higher ground.”
On Friday, officials in Grand Isle, La., issued a mandatory evacuation order beginning early Saturday. Police Chief Laine Landry said that a few people had already left to stay with family and friends and that he expected more to go Saturday. But he said that about 75 percent of the island’s 1,300 local residents likely would choose to ride out the storm confined to their houses, the majority of which stand 18 to 20 feet above ground.
“For our culture here, in a low level Cat One, they know they are going to be without electricity and medical and police services,” Landry said. “But they would rather be at home.”
The island is isolated and has had few coronavirus cases, but the geography of the coastline makes it difficult to predict the exact impact of any storm.
“I’m not going to bed for three days over this,” said Joe Valiente, director of emergency management in Jefferson Parish.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is anticipating an unusually active hurricane season, pointing to a developing La Niña event in the tropical Pacific and above-average sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico and tropical Atlantic. And on Thursday, Colorado State University updated its forecast, anticipating 19 named storms, including Arthur, Bertha and now Cristobal, with nine hurricanes, four of them potential blockbusters of Category 3 or higher.
Cristobal, which formed on June 2, is the earliest third-named storm to form in the Atlantic since records began in 1851.
“We can already say it’s a record-setting hurricane season,” Fugate said.
The possibility of repeat hurricane threats in the United States has led local and state officials to emphasize the need for residents to heed warnings when they come — emphasizing that in many cases, a direct hit from a hurricane would be far worse than the risk of contracting coronavirus.
“It’s extremely important this year that people stay tuned into local officials,” said Mike Steele, communications director for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in Louisiana, where recommendations often vary from parish to parish.
FEMA officials could not be reached for comment.
Some people who live in newer homes equipped to withstand high winds might be able to shelter in place. And evacuating early to seek refuge with family and friends, as emergency managers have long recommended, now has the benefit of minimizing contact with strangers.
Marley Monacello recalls the horrors of evacuating as Hurricane Irma barreled toward her home in southwest Florida almost three years ago. She and her wife drove two cars with four dogs, two parakeets and a few family treasures to her parents’ house in Tallahassee.
The trauma led them to replace their double-wide trailer with what Monacello calls “a total concrete block house.” It is equipped with a small generator, gas cans and other emergency provisions to allow them to shelter in place in anything but the most powerful storms.
Monacello, who works among migrant farmworkers at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, worries about putting her parents at risk from the coronavirus by relocating to stay with them. She also is concerned about the long-term public health impact of a big storm on marginalized people like the farmworkers, who have been hit hard by the virus.
“It’s a nightmare to think about a huge hurricane coming and people in town needing to go into shelters,” she said. “It’s the worst-case scenario in terms of exacerbating the pandemic.”
Many areas are arranging for “non-congregate” shelters such as hotels, college campuses and campgrounds, which have been sitting empty because of the virus.
Those who go to traditional shelters likely will face temperature checks before boarding public transportation, then additional screening at the destination, so that infected evacuees and their families can be accommodated separately. Meals might be boxed rather than served in buffets. And everyone will be expected to wear masks and to practice social distancing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued evacuation guidance, suggesting shelters should be small, with fewer than 50 residents. But if a massive storm threatens densely populated regions, those goals could be difficult to achieve.
“We have got what we have got,” said Sherry-Lea Bloodworth Botop, public information officer in Baldwin County, Ala. “There’s not going to be room for everyone,”
Louisiana is increasing the space allocated to each evacuee from 30 square feet to 45 square feet to enable some distancing, according to Valiente, who is advising residents to bolster emergency packs with personal protective equipment for Cristobal and future storms.
“Bring masks. Bring some gloves. Bring hand sanitizer,” Valiente said.
Even if Cristobal does not prompt evacuations, it is a harbinger of what’s to come. The waters it has been traversing range from about 0.9 to 2.7 degrees above average for this time of year, and scientists say this adds to not just this storm’s potential rainfall and intensity, but also to the power of subsequent storms this season.
FEMA, which is playing a lead role in the Trump administration’s coronavirus response, is having to rewrite aspects of its storm response playbook to take the pandemic into account. At a May 29 Oval Office briefing, FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor assured President Donald Trump the agency is ready for whatever the hurricane season has in store.
“Are we ready?” Trump asked. Gaynor replied: “Yes, sir. FEMA is always ready, sir.”
The agency is seeking to make many of its functions virtual, such as processing storm damage claims, and to rely on personnel that have already been deployed to disaster zones rather than sending new waves of people who could fall victim to the virus.
The agency’s 2020 hurricane season handbook, aimed at state and local emergency managers, says the agency will prioritize securing communications lines. But hurricanes knock out power and communications networks, which means that processing claims and performing other functions could prove challenging to impossible. In a report published this week looking at how disaster response staffing and budgets will be affected by the virus, Fugate argued for a change in disaster-response communications, from two-way radios to smartphones with low-cost mesh networking devices.
Even the webinars the agency has been holding to brief managers have been beset by glitches. When one was canceled Thursday because of technical problems, managers started typing, in public view, messages about their frustrations, such as this one: “THIS IS A GIANT WASTE OF MY TIME.”
Even when virtual planning goes well, the process presents challenges for people who will have to act in quick coordination during a crisis, according to Zachary Hood, director of the Emergency Management Agency in Baldwin County, Ala.
“In emergency management, it’s all about relationships,” Hood said. “If you are meeting virtually, you may miss something.”
It’s not the first time officials have had to handle illness among people displaced by disasters. After the November 2018 fires that obliterated Paradise, Calif., an outbreak of vomiting and diarrhea swept through shelters, where sanitizing was increased and areas had to be cordoned off for people afflicted with the highly contagious norovirus.
But the coronavirus presents another level of danger, including for volunteers, who are often retirees and could incur additional risk in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.
Fugate has suggested taking advantage of the furloughed workforce to replace them, as well as drawing on the hard-hit hospitality industry in U.S. coastal regions, using FEMA funding to enlist restaurants to cook meals for evacuees, for example. And in Louisiana, emergency responders are trying to make sure they have extra personal protective equipment to hand out to volunteer groups like the Cajun Navy, Steele said.
Malary White, director of external affairs at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said storms that hit the region in April — during the coronavirus outbreak — alerted them to the challenges that lie ahead.
“Our biggest obstacle is going to be sheltering,” White said, hoping many people will go to a friend’s or family member’s house instead of public shelters. And a lesson she hopes can be repeated is to employ local companies in the recovery effort.
The coronavirus complicated everything from sanitizing shelters to maintaining supply chains when Tropical Storm Harold hit four Pacific Island nations in April, according to Kayly Ober, of Refugees International. While some problems might be more manageable on the U.S. mainland, other problems could crop up.
“The political factors,” Ober said. “Like who is wearing a mask, who is social distancing.”
The coronavirus also will test NOAA, since it will have to maintain staffing at the National Hurricane Center in Miami as well as keep its fleet of hurricane research aircraft flying. The aging fleet of planes, named after “Muppet” characters, pipe data directly into the computer models forecasters use to improve forecast accuracy.
Flight crew members have been practicing social distancing and working remotely when on the ground, according to spokesman Chris Vaccaro. He said aircraft “will fly with the minimum number of crew members necessary to conduct missions.”
Cristobal could bring high winds and heavy rains to the Panhandle in Florida, historically the hardest-hit state, where residents already are mulling what to do when the next big storm heads their way.
Karen Dwyer, who has seen storms of all shapes and sizes in the 60 years she has lived in Naples, Fla., is looking at the 2020 hurricane season with fresh and uncertain eyes. She heard on public radio that the local shelters would take about 35 percent of their normal capacity, and she worries about staying with elderly friends inland.
“Where do you go now, with COVID-19?” the retired teacher asked. “I’m sort of in a quandary about where.”