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The non-profit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) develops maps of evacuation zones along the shoreline that are updated each year. They are available online and can help individuals and family determine an important first step in planning, whether they can stay or have to go during a hurricane. (Photo courtesy of FLASH )
Hemingway Avenue, Coe Avenue, and Short Beach Road after the floodwaters from 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene in subsided a bit. After this storm, the town started a project to raise the roadway by two feet. (Photo by John Vanacore/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Town schools are traditionally used as shelters during hurricanes, but emergency managers are going to have to rethink how shelters are set up this year to accommodate concerns about COVID-19. (Photo by Jessica Smith/The Source | Buy This Photo)
A neighborhood in Old Saybrook following Superstorm Sandy. (Photo by Brian Boyd/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Circle Beach in Madison after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 (Photo by Kelly Smith/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Branford in the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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Here’s the bad news: the Atlantic hurricane season started this week and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center says it’s likely to be a busy one.
The outlook points toward a 60 percent chance of an above-normal season.
Here’s some more bad news: Whether it’s a hurricane or some other weather-related emergency this summer, any response will be vastly more complicated and fraught with danger, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Emergency managers, exhausted from responding non-stop to the continually shape-shifting pandemic, are going to have to rework their existing plans taking into account the need for personal protective equipment, social distancing, and a public transfixed by an ongoing health emergency that has created economic devastation.
New plans may require time, money, and resources to implement, while governments are in the process of emptying their coffers to respond to the pandemic. The fact that so many people are out of work means more people will need more help than ever before, and that they will have fewer resources to provide that help for themselves.
While federal, state, and local governments are focused on the pandemic, volunteers—a mainstay of help during past emergencies—tend to skew older and so are among those most at risk during the pandemic and so might be a more scarce resource during this summer’s weather emergencies.
But there is some good news.
Many emergency managers are turning their attention, now, to how to make this work. And individuals and families still have time to make a plan so that they can reduce the chances of needing help.
They have time to plan if they start now, that is.
Sooner is Better, Now is Best
“Folks should be looking at their hurricane plans sooner this year,” says Daniel Brown, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center. “They need to make sure they are prepared. It might take longer to get supplies. You’ll need to gather food, water, non-perishables. If you do live in an evacuation zone, and you are told to evacuate, you need to be ready to leave and have a place to go. Because of the pandemic, you may need to have more than one option in terms of places to go. You may want to look to friends or family, and figure out how you can stay socially distanced, and you may want to have a few more options on the table.”
He also says it’s imperative that local and state emergency managers look at their plans now, and figure out how they can safely open shelters and deal with other logistics.
Old Saybrook Police Chief Michael Spera, who is also the town’s director of emergency management and president of the Connecticut Emergency Management Association, agrees.
“The first thing I’m going to say might be controversial. But, while we’re still actively responding to this public health emergency and in the beginning phases of recovering from the public health emergency, we can’t focus 100 percent on that,” he says. “We have to focus on hurricane preparedness.”
He says he knows emergency managers and municipal officials are tired from working flat out. He also says there is no excuse for any community to not be prepared to protect its citizens from weather emergencies.
“The primary mission of government is to provide for the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens,” he says. “You cannot do that if you are not prepared to do that.”
A To-Do List
The preparation phase for families and individuals should include the following:
1. Make sure the family has a way of staying informed about emergency notifications. That means signing up for any local alerts and warnings. Most towns have information about that on their websites, and the state of Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection has one as well at www.ctalert.gov. Another reliable resource is weather.gov, which provides information from the National Weather Service, and www.nhc.noaa.gov, the National Hurricane Center.
2. Determine whether you are in an evacuation zone. The Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH), annually conducts an online and telephone survey of emergency management officials in coastal municipalities to provide updated information about storm surge evacuation zones, mapping, and evacuation routes. This will help families determine whether they should shelter in place during a hurricane or if they live in an area that will require them to evacuate. If it’s the latter, those families should determine the best potential route out and figure out where they’re going to go, providing themselves with several options due to the complexity of this hurricane season. Towns listed on the FLASH April 2020 list include East Haven, Branford, Guilford, Madison, Clinton, Westbrook, and Old Saybrook. Find those at flash.org/pdf/2020_Hurricane_Evacuation_Zones.pdf.
3. Start stocking emergency supplies. It may sound crazy to start this before there’s even a hint of a hurricane, but the pandemic has already created shortages of some supplies, and so it’s better to slowly stock up over time during many trips to the grocery store than to be that person sweating it out two days before the storm hits, at the end of a long line of grumpy people at the supermarket. When considering what your family will need, think about food, hygiene and sanitation, protective gear, and medical needs, among other factors. Spera recommends building a ready kit that includes personal protective equipment. Also, if you’re on a well and if it doesn’t work when you lose power, consider stocking up on extra water this year, due to the increased importance of sanitation and hand washing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated its ready kit list with items that can help prevent the spread of coronovirus. That information is available at www.ready.gov/kit.
4. Protect your property. Now is the time to do any needed maintenance of anything that might be a problem during a storm. It’s also a good time to review insurance policies and catalog belongings.
More Information This Year
Hurricane experts say it’s important to listen to local officials when it comes to evacuation orders, and to heed them. To help both individuals and local emergency management officials made decisions about storms, NOAA National Hurricane Center is providing two new products this year, a graphical depiction of storm surge and a 60-hour forecast point.
The graphical depiction of storm surge puts a focus on one of the greatest threats to life, storm surges. Many people focus on wind speeds in the form of the category ratings of the storm. Wind can be deadly, but water is more to be feared. Storm surge—along with rainfall flooding, high surf, and near offshore deaths—has accounted for more than 80 percent of all deaths in recent years in this country.
“Basically this shows a reasonable worst-case scenario of what people should be planning for,” Brown says. “This product is geared towards the public for them to get a quick look at how high the surge could end up being. If you’re in that area and there is the potential for a life-threatening storm surge, you need to listen to local officials and, if they’re telling you to evacuate, you should do so.”
For those who are outside the evacuation zone, the best decision might be to ride it out, if they live in a well-built, secure building, he said.
The 60-hour forecast point provides emergency planners with some additional information around “the time frame when we are getting close to a watch and a warning,” Brown says. “This could provide us with a little more information about intensity and location as it gets closer to land.”
Spera says local emergency management officials have a big job on their hands when it comes to making plans this year.
Not Making the Same Mistake Twice
“If you close your eyes and think about old fashioned sheltering, 100 cots all together in one room, we’re obviously not going to be able to do that this year,” Spera says.
An alternative might be to use individual classrooms in schools. “We might be grouping families as best we can in rooms,” he says. “We’ll need to change how we do mass feedings. Gone are the days of 100 people standing in line to be fed. We have to be flexible as things change. We don’t know whether we will see this thing resurface in the fall or not. But it’s a concern and it has to be at the forefront of emergency managers’ minds.”
Emergency managers, in addition to rethinking hurricane preparedness, also should be thinking about other weather events, he says.
“We’re consumed with this COVID-19 response, but we must give energy to prepare for hurricane season, and even what a fast-moving thunderstorm can do,” he says, noting there has been an increase in storm bursts that cause severe local flooding along the shoreline.
He knows everyone is exhausted from the pandemic. But he says it’s a good time to pay attention to what the summer might bring.
“Be hyper-vigilant. Really pay attention to the forecast. Don’t be overly concerned, but be cognizant of what’s going on,” he says. “Think about how fortunate we are, in modern times, to have days to prepare. We should not take that for granted. We should use that time to prepare.”
It’s safer to be prepared, he says, and the response to COVID-19 shows that. “We can look at COVID-19 and the argument can be made that the country, the state, some communities, we know definitely some places were not prepared,” he says.
He doesn’t want that same mistake to be made with hurricane season during the COVID-19 crisis.
“We should never be unprepared again,” he says.
For more information and a checklist on how to prepare for hurricane season, visit zip06.com, search on the headline for this article, and download the linked brochure from the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) on “How to Prepare for a Hurricane.” FEMA in May released the Pandemic Operational Guidance for the 2020 Hurricane Season for emergency managers and public health officials. That is available at www.fema.gov.
The 2020 guide to the Madison Chamber of Commerce has arrived!