Ashley Henyan is no stranger to natural disasters. Over the course of her career with the American Red Cross, she’s witnessed the aftermath of wildfires in Southern California and tornadoes in Alabama. The personal toll can be heart-wrenching: so many homes destroyed, so many lives upended, so many people who knew someone who had been lost.
Now, the executive director of the Red Cross of the Lowcountry is among many in emergency management bracing for an Atlantic hurricane season like no one has witnessed before. Not only is 2020 expected to be “extremely active” from a tropical standpoint, according to NOAA forecasters, but families also will be forced to cope with a coronavirus that shows no sign of releasing its grip on the Palmetto State.
“It's different this year,” Henyan says. “Of course, the work that we're doing at the Red Cross is going to stay the same. Our mission and our commitment to helping the community is staying the same. But what we’re doing will look different, and what folks need to do at home with their family may be a little bit different this year, too. But the best thing you can do is start getting prepared now.”
A potential hurricane evacuation in the midst of a pandemic? No one has experienced anything like that before, and the threat of COVID-19 promises to impact or alter several steps in the process, from where families evacuate to, to what they take with them, to how shelters accommodate those with nowhere else to go.
“Unfortunately, we have already had experience with an emergency response during COVID-19. The April tornado outbreak left many homeless in the Upstate,” says Kim Stenson, director of the S.C. Emergency Management Division. “Although that was on a much smaller scale than a hurricane, it was still a challenge for emergency managers and the American Red Cross. COVID-19 is very much a part of discussions and planning as we head into to the most active time during hurricane season.”
Prepare two kits
For families with children, the key is planning ahead. Many people have more downtime now due to events or gatherings being canceled due to the coronavirus. And, emergency managers urge families to use some of it to prepare for a potential hurricane event. Henyan says families should pack two kits: one in case they have to shelter at home, and another in case they have to leave.
The larger of the two would contain a two-week supply of food, water and medication, as well as the same amount of infant formula or pet food, if applicable. Preparing that kit can be more of a challenge during the pandemic, Henyan says, given that families can never be sure of what may or may not be on store shelves. “So when you're out shopping or when you're ordering grocery delivery, just get a few extra items each time,” she adds.
The smaller kit, to be used in an evacuation, should contain three days’ worth of food, water, formula, medication, pet food or anything else needed over the short term. Henyan also advises bringing copies of important documents, perhaps on an easy-to-carry thumb drive. Also pack a real flashlight (don’t rely just on your phone), a first aid kit and activities for children, including some that don’t require electricity, such as coloring books or card games, given that you could be spending longer than anticipated in the car.
And due to the presence of highly contagious COVID-19, families also need to pack a few extra items: face coverings for everyone in the family, disposable gloves, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer made of at least 60 percent alcohol. And be aware that rules on wearing masks differ from one community to another, and where you’re evacuating to may have different laws than where you’re coming from.
Masks “may be required in the area you may be relocating to,” says Jason Patno, Charleston County Emergency Management Director. “You don’t necessarily know, so you want to ensure you have them on hand.”
Henyan also advises incorporating children into the planning process, in an attempt to prepare them for the real thing. “Parents can sit down with children as they’re making their plan, and talk about some of the emotions and feelings that would come up if a strong storm were to hit,” she says. “Ask them, ‘How would that make you feel?’ Talking about it usually helps make it a little less stressful when the time comes.”
Items like a DHEC-produced coloring book designed to help children understand COVID-19 can aid the process. “Emergency planning can start with a simple conversation around the dinner table,” Stenson says. “You can also make it fun. Do an at-home scavenger hunt. Have them help you find items you already have at home to include in your family emergency supply kit.”
Shelters and social distance
When Hurricane Dorian approached the Southeastern U.S. coast in 2019, more than 440,000 people in South Carolina evacuated, and 2,500 people stayed in emergency shelters around the Palmetto State. Given that not every family has somewhere to go in the event of an evacuation, shelters will serve a crucial role again this hurricane season, even if they’ll have to be tweaked due to the pandemic.
Patno says Charleston County shelters would require the use of masks, and spread out people using shelters according to social distancing guidelines. That raises the chance that shelters won’t be able to accommodate as many evacuees as in previous hurricane events.
“That’s very much a possibility,” he says. “We’re developing contingency plans now to address that situation should it arise. But really, if you have the means and ability to evacuate the area following the issuance of an evacuation order by the governor, or if you want to relocate prior to that order being issued, then that’s the only way we can guarantee your safety.”
Stenson says SCEMD shelters should be able to accommodate any who need them, given that the structures are opened on an as-needed basis. Henyan says the Red Cross is working with universities on potential use of dormitories, which would allow families to abide by social distancing guidelines by having their own rooms. Conventional shelters would feature screening processes such as a temperature check, the spreading out of cots, requiring use of masks, hand-washing stations and offering meals in shifts rather than to everyone at once.
Still, sheltering represents one of the biggest challenges emergency managers will face this hurricane season, Stenson says, due to the potential danger of COVID-19 spread. “We’re going to put all safety measures into place,” Henyan adds.
So indeed, a hurricane evacuation this season promises to be different, presenting different challenges for families to overcome, and even different concerns that may linger for weeks after the storm has passed. But given the unpredictable character of natural disasters, emergency managers learn to adapt.
“The thing with emergencies and disasters is that that even before there was a global health crisis and a pandemic, they're all different,” Henyan says. “So every emergency and every disaster, they never look the same. And the response to them is always different as well. So we're just planning a little bit differently from the start now, knowing that things are going to be a little bit more challenging. But we have a good plan in place.”
Even in the midst of a national health crisis, some aspects of a hurricane evacuation remain…