As hurricane season starts Monday, most of North Carolina’s coastal counties are grappling with shortfalls or concerns about equipment and resources as they balance the dual threat of tropical weather and the COVID-19 pandemic.
All 20 counties in the state’s coastal management zone told The Associated Press that COVID-19 is factoring into hurricane preparations. Five of those - Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Hyde and Washington - said overall plans hadn’t changed, but they’re ready to adjust to the virus if needed.
Fifteen counties acknowledged shortfalls or concerns about supplies, with protective gear being the most common worry during a national shortage. However, three others - Dare, New Hanover and Pender- say they have sufficient resources for hurricane season.
The pandemic increases the stakes for a state hit hard in recent years by hurricanes Florence and Matthew. And forecasters predict a busy hurricane season beginning Monday, with two named storms already affecting North Carolina before the start date.
Pamlico County Emergency Management Director Chris Murray said in an email that “adding the COVID-19 Pandemic into play has been a game changer.”
North Carolina Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry said hotels, classrooms and dorms are being considered as shelters to increase social distancing, but that negotiating multiple disasters at once isn’t new.
“North Carolina has dealt with simultaneous incidents in the past and will do so in the future which is why we use an all-hazards approach in our preparedness and response operations,” Sprayberry said in an email.
However, no counties confirmed that hotels are part of their sheltering mix, with 10 noting they have limited or no hotels.
“We have no hotels in the county. We only have schools,” Tyrell County Manager David Clegg said.
Carson Smith, emergency management director for Pender County, said sanitizer and masks will be available at shelters, but the county will have a similar sheltering footprint to previous years.
Ten counties have changed shelter plans or are likely to do so. Seven counties said sheltering plans aren’t changing; several rely on inland shelters during any hurricane season.
In terms of resources, 11 counties expressed concerns about protective gear. Six expressed concern about staffing and six about funds.
Brunswick County Emergency Services Director Ed Conrow noted a loss of tourism could deplete tax revenue, though the full impact isn’t clear.
“One of the biggest concerns right now with the economic downturn - with businesses being closed up, being a tourist town, and people not coming here- is it’s going to have an impact on the county budget. We’re still trying to see what that impact is,” he said by phone.
Plans for nursing homes, assisted living facilities and hospitals vary. Six counties acknowledged altering those plans because of the coronavirus. Nine noted facilities in their territories are privately owned, but counties would assist as necessary. Some officials said the facilities would be encouraged to shelter in place when possible.
“These populations would shelter in place unless there is an absolute need to evacuate,” said Stanley Kite, the Craven County emergency services director.
The state government said it will help transport sick patients from such facilities and noted it set up a 50-bed medical shelter at a shuttered inland hospital.
Craven County, home to 100,000 and hit hard by Florence, estimated its readiness at 50 of 100, compared to 90 percent normally, Kite said. He said the biggest change would be screening for symptomatic coronavirus patients and directing them to secondary shelters with more space.
Beaufort County, meanwhile, rated its current readiness level at 75, compared to 95 in a normal year. Hertford County rated itself 85 currently, compared to 95 before the pandemic. And Bertie County Emergency Services Director Mitch Cooper gave his county a perfect 100, saying: “If there is one thing this county is good at, (it) is surviving a hurricane.”
Other counties wouldn’t quantify their preparedness level, but six said the pandemic hadn’t changed it.
As far as evacuation routes, the state government is launching a previously planned tiered evacuation system based on local zones.
“People should never ride out the storm if an evacuation order is given for their location. They are endangering their own lives as well as those of first responders who may need to rescue them,” Sprayberry said.
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