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COVID changes dynamics for hurricane prep

BY MARGARET HIGH Posted on: 07.14.2020 at 08:00 a.m. | PREMIUM CONTENT

As hurricane season 2020 continues, Columbus County has developed COVID-19 precautions for its relief response. While Emergency Service Director Kay Worley says directives seem to change every day, the main messaging encourages residents to move inland in the event of a hurricane. If residents choose not to evacuate, there will be storm shelters that follow social distancing guidelines, require face masks at all times, and provide temperature checks to monitor the health of storm shelter seekers.

Nurses will be provided by the Columbus County Department of Health. “We are trying to prepare,” Columbus County Health Director Kim Smith said. “We’ve had several conference calls and several more scheduled to talk about how to handle a hurricane shelter during a pandemic.” Other major storm shelter precautions include setting up quarantine rooms within the shelter where COVID-19 positive residents can safely stay away from others. Nurses will monitor the separation of residents.

North Carolina Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry said evacuation is preferred in the event of a hurricane and even promoted staying at a hotel before staying in a storm shelter. “I have seen that recommendation from the state that individuals who can should go inland, but I don’t know how much of our population can do that,” Smith said. She added that there are only four or five hotels in the county and that they have not been responsive to providing COVID-19 support. American Red Cross is not allowing cots in storm shelters in order to maximize shelter capacity while maintaining six feet of social distance. Smith recommends people bring something to sleep on if they plan on staying in a storm shelter in the event of a hurricane. Current hurricane response plans allow up to five shelters to open, depending on the size and intensity of the hurricane, and will require two nurses per day. Smith and Worley say staffing will be an issue, since the health department has access to only 17 nurses, eight of whom are school nurses. If all five shelters were to open, 10 nurses would be needed per day. Buffets within the shelter will likely be replaced by individually wrapped food, complicating how hurricane relief nonprofit groups typically respond. Wallyce Todd of Community CPR says her nonprofit is behind on preparing for the hurricane season but is ready to pivot once the need arises. They’re currently swamped with supporting families during COVID-19, Todd said, and haven’t cleared space for hurricane supplies. “Our hurricane preparedness has taken a backseat because we’ve been working to help those in our community needing help during COVID,” Todd said. “We could use some male volunteers for a few hours any day of the week to make space for if we have to pivot back to disaster response.” Face masks, cleaning supplies and other assistance will be provided by the state, Smith says, and they anticipate requesting additional nurses if a sizable hurricane develops this season. Hurricane emergency kits have changed to fit COVID-19 concerns, like adding facemasks to the kits. “People need to form a plan,” Smith says. “Go inland if you can, stay with aunts and uncles. If that’s not possible, emergency kits need to include three days worth of food and water, essential medical supplies, any special medications, batteries and a radio.” Todd said she worries about another devastating hurricane hitting Columbus County while also fighting the coronavirus, but she believes the people are resilient and built to endure. “We’ve been through a lot, so we have it in us,” Todd said. “We have it in us to survive and thrive regardless of what the weather throws at us. But we are going to need people to be willing to volunteer and be boots on the ground.”

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