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Coronavirus Complicates Hurricane Prep, But Federal And Local Officials Are Readying New Plans

Jess Clark
Lakeview residents fill sandbags at their local fire station to prepare for Hurricane Nate in 2017.

As the start hurricane season nears and officials make their preparations, their plans are complicated by extremely unusual circumstances: the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season begins June first, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will announce its initial outlook next week. The Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) has a plan for every hurricane season that involves local parishes and city governments. Officials make decisions about evacuations or sheltering in place as events unfold.

On the whole, officials at GOHSEP are not overly concerned about this added layer, they are just hopeful that there are no early-season hurricanes, as people are likely to be more prepared in the fall and there will likely be fewer cases of COVID-19 by then.

GOHSEP Deputy Director Casey Tingle said keeping people safe by getting them out of the path of potential hurricanes will take precedence, but the agency is developing a plan for contingencies and tweaking existing evacuation protocols for social distancing and quarantining. 

Officials will hold a virtual tabletop exercise on Thursday with the National Weather Service to run through some potential scenarios to identify potential issues.

The plan is that major evacuation sites like the Monroe Civic Center and the Cajundome in Lafayette will still be used, but greater security layers will be necessary. Officials may take evacuees’ temperatures before they board buses in order to keep those who are potentially infected separated.

Medical supplies and space for medical patients will need to be adjusted based on need. GOHSEP spokesman Mike Steele said the Alexandria Evacuation Megashelter, run by Louisiana State University, is often used for evacuees with medical needs, but there may be some segregation needed for COVID positive patients. They may use social distancing techniques as they transport people and house them.

Officials are encouraging residents to stock up on personal protective equipment, such as masks and hand sanitizer, and add that to their hurricane prep kits.

No state shelters are currently in use. Steele said most of their typical weather-related supply chains for things like bottled water, cots and MRE’s remain intact.

Officials are working with partnering states, including as Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, that usually offer space for evacuees to determine whether those partnerships still stand and what that might look like.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. 

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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