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Hillsborough, Pinellas County have hurricane season, social distancing top of mind

The number one thing counties are asking residents to do in preparation for this year's hurricane season is to have an emergency plan in place.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — While the world is in the midst of dealing with social distancing, quarantine life, and shelter in place, it’s clear the coronavirus has disrupted everyone’s lives.

In several weeks, people living in Florida, and along the east coast will have one more thing to worry about. Hurricane season. People will start to replenish their hurricane emergency supply kits, sign up for shelters, and route their evacuation plans.

With no clear end in sight for COVID-19, one thing is certain, hurricane season is coming.

In a letter to Florida’s media outlets, Sen. Rick Scott said it's ideal to urge families to “prepare for hurricane season now.”

“Federal, state and local officials are going to have to address how to keep families safe while adhering to CDC guidelines on the coronavirus. Floridians are going to have to get creative in their preparedness efforts,” Sen. Scott wrote.

Most counties throughout Florida begin to draft their annual hurricane guide every year starting in January.

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When Pinellas County realized COVID-19 and social distancing could be a factor for the upcoming hurricane season, the team took action and started to re-edit their pamphlet to include safety guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This approach would include considerations for social distancing, personal protection equipment, and some hygiene protocols,” said Ashley Johnson, Pinellas County senior communications coordinator.

Johnson said the county is also working with shelters to possibly increase the square footage each person will have in the event we are still practicing social distancing if a catastrophic storm is headed our way.  

In Hillsborough County, they are thinking about expanding the 15-square-foot space to about 40 x 50 square-feet per person.

“You're going to need a lot more room,” said Chief Dennis Jones of Hillsborough County Fire and Rescue.

Johnson explained that "the population number will change from shelter to shelter because each space will be different.” 

To get ahead of not having enough places for people to take cover during a potentially catastrophic hurricane, Hillsborough County is contemplating adding more schools to the shelter list as well as other places not being occupied.

“Schools are currently built to withstand hurricanes,” said Jones. “But there are a lot of structures that have been built recently to newer codes that are perhaps out of the hazard zone and still provide us a strong measure of safety."

Jones said they are also looking into vacant hotels throughout Hillsborough County. “That solves a lot of problems for us because you can put families, or individuals in a separate room. And then you don't have to worry about the isolation or separation.”

In addition, Jones said Hillsborough County plans to designate the Yuengling Center, formerly the USF Sun Dome, a hurricane shelter for people and families with special needs and those who require medical support. The center can hold up to 500 people, said Jones.

As a reminder, if you or your family have loved ones with special needs, and have to evacuate for a hurricane, it's ideal to register at your designated shelter at the beginning of hurricane season.

Pinellas County is currently working with its partners to figure out how they will implement the rules of people wearing personal protective equipment like face masks and gloves while in hurricane shelters.

The county is also discussing if they will need to have hand sanitizer available for people who are staying in shelters during a hurricane.

Over in Hillsborough County, it’s also all hands-on deck, “We’ve got people working the COVID-19 pandemic and we also have a group working specifically on the storm response during this time,” said Jones.

‘If we're still in this pandemic, we're going to be concerned about everyone who comes into the shelter,” said Jones.

The chief said they will try to take everyone’s temperature when they check into hurricane shelters. He noted that his team has plenty of infrared thermometers in stock.

“If we have a positive patient, we would put a surgical mask on the positive guest,” said Jones. “Even if someone is asymptomatic, we will also put a surgical mask on them.”

Jones said, despite the national shortage the goal is to have as many PPEs available as possible. “We're actually now having a company in Plant City making cloth masks for us and it can be reused.”

Jones said the masks will be used for COVID-19 response teams, as well as hurricane response workers.

As you can imagine, counties across the state of Florida will have their hands full fine-tuning their plan as they prepare for hurricane season.

Jones said Hillsborough County is prepared to bring in an incident management team if a hurricane were to touchdown in the Tampa Bay area.

But the number one thing, both Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties are asking their residents to do in preparation for hurricane season, is to have an emergency plan in place and start to prepare your hurricane kit now.

Ready.gov has a detailed list of everything you need in your kit. 

If you start buying a little at a time for the next few weeks, you’ll have everything you need by the start of the hurricane season, which officially starts on June 1 and ends on November 30.

So, make sure you know where you will go if you live in an evacuation zone.

Before evacuating, try to find a friend or family member who lives in a non-evacuation zone and ride the storm out with them.

Have enough water and non-perishable food on hand.

And think about what you will do if the power went out. Do you have enough candles and batteries?   

We reached out to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, as well as FEMA, to ask about how they are preparing for this unique hurricane season. 

We will update this story as soon as we learn something new.

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