COVID-19 poses challenges for hurricane shelters

OKEECHOBEE — Concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 virus will provide additional problems during hurricane season.

At the May 28 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission, Mitch Smeykal of the Okeechobee Emergency Operations Center said statewide EOC officials have been working together to try to come up with solutions and common-sense approaches.

He said all 67 counties are different. Some counties plan to use “non-congregate” shelters by placing residents who must evacuate their homes in hotel rooms. While that could work in Orlando, which has 140,000 hotel rooms, it won’t work in places like Okeechobee County or Glades County, he said.

“We only have 550 hotel rooms,” Mr. Smeykal continued. Also, some of those hotel rooms are filled with emergency officials such as power company employees, as well as local residents who pay for their own rooms. In addition,when a storm approaches, some of the hotels close so employees can be with their families.

Mr. Smeykal said the Red Cross and FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) initially recommended each person in a shelter be allocated 110 square feet of space in order to provide social distancing space. That’s impossible in Okeechobee County, said Mr. Smeykal, because there just aren’t enough shelter buildings.

He said Red Cross eventually agreed to 45 to 60 square feet per family for at-risk sheltering.

“It makes a more responsible accommodation with the shelter space we have,” he explained. Even so, it cut the number of people that each of the shelters can hold in half.

Previously, the shelter at Osecola Middle School had a capacity of 650 people. With the new restrictions, it can hold about 300 to 325.

South Elementary School had a capacity of about 500; that will be reduced to 225 to 250.

Red Cross is on board with 60 square feet for risk sheltering, not post-impact sheltering, he said.

“Red Cross will support us with two shelter teams, he continued.

Mr. Smeykal said when a storm is coming, “messaging will be a big part of this.” He said emergency managers will encourage people to stay home if their home is well constructed.

A third shelter, at Okeechobee Achievement Academy, will be screened by the Red Cross next week, he said.

Mr. Smeykal said when they use schools as hurricane shelters they don’t like to use the classrooms.

“We don’t like to use classrooms because they have to put everything up and then clean and disinfect the classrooms afterward,” he explained.

“We have enough to get us through the first storm,” he continued. After that, it could be problem.

The shelter registration process will have to change to avoid having people too close together.

“We may include need to add new technological options,” he explained. “We don’t want people standing at a counter signing in.”

Medical screenings such as temperature checks could further complicate or delay shelter entry.

“If someone is sick, what do we do with them?” he asked.

Cleaning and sanitation procedures at shelters will have to be enhanced. Meal servings will have to be creative.

The CDC recommends pre-packaged meals, he said. But can Okeechobee County afford to provide several thousand prepackaged meals a day?

Other questions will come up in an emergency and managers will have to make sensible decisions.

“What do we do when the wind’s blowing? If the wind is blowing and we have people wanting to get in, will we turn them away? If we have to rack ’em, stack ’em and pack ’em we will do what we have to in order to get them out of the weather,” he said.

The personal protective equipment (PPE) demand will be extensive, said Mr. Smeykal. Shelter workers will wear masks. Face masks will also be encouraged for those seeking shelter.

Commissioner Kelly Owens asked if they can separate the people who wear masks from those who refuse to wear masks. Some people get very upset if others refuse to wear masks, she said.

The pandemic will make hurricane season more stressful for everyone, said Mr. Smeykal. “What’s the greater risk, staying in your house by the water or going to a shelter and running the risk of COVID-19?”

He said the pandemic may also affect the timing of the shelter openings.

“You can plan all you want but at the end of the day, you are going to do the best that you can,” Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said.

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