County Gears Up To Confront First Tropical Storm In COVID-19 Era

During briefings on emergency preparedness Tuesday, July 28, Palm Beach County Emergency Management Director Bill Johnson told the Palm Beach County Commission that county staff is planning for a potential hurricane/COVID-19 crisis in light of heavy tropical activity in the Atlantic Ocean.

Still unnamed as of Wednesday, July 28, if it gains strength, the current system in the Caribbean will be known as Tropical Storm Isaias and has South Florida in its cone of probability, possibly arriving here late Saturday or early Sunday.

“Forecast model accuracy is limited in systems without a center of circulation, so it is really too early to tell what this storm is going to do,” Johnson said. “Regardless, the National Hurricane Center says conditions are expected to become more conducive for development, and a tropical depression or storm is likely to form in the next few days.”

He said shelter plans have been altered to accommodate CDC guidelines for COVID-19.

“Citizen safety is our top priority, so anyone residing in an evacuation zone who must evacuate to one of our shelters should feel safe in doing so,” Johnson said. “No one should hesitate to evacuate because of the virus. With the measures that we have put in place, the risks of storm surge far outweigh the risk of COVID-19 in a hurricane scenario.”

Palm Beach County Vice Mayor Robert Weinroth said he wanted to make sure that the county has enough personal protective equipment for the hurricane season. He also stressed that with a tropical storm, residents would probably be safe to remain in their homes if they are not in a flood zone.

Johnson noted that Palm Beach County has stringent building codes that render most buildings safe in a hurricane.

“The majority of buildings in Palm Beach County will withstand hurricane-force winds and, therefore, we do not evacuate for hurricane winds,” he said. “We evacuate for storm surge — that dome of water that is pushed in front of the storm. That is what our evacuation zones are designed for. That is what kills people; flooding that happens just as the hurricane is making landfall.”

Johnson stressed that people should evacuate only if they are specifically told to do so.

“We believe, as we’ve said year after year, if you have to evacuate, we encourage people to stay within the county,” he said, noting that the county has extensive information regarding hurricane preparedness on its web site.

Johnson said that anyone equipped with the county’s recommended disaster kit should be fine sheltering in place.

“How much of a supply of food and other supplies should they be contemplating to have on hand?” Weinroth asked.

“We used to recommend three days’ supply, but I’m starting to think that five to seven days’ supply should be the norm now,” Johnson said.

Weinroth also asked if nursing homes are keeping emergency generators operational so that no evacuations are necessary.

Johnson said that every nursing home, skilled nursing center and hospital in Palm Beach County is required to have an emergency plan, which is reviewed by the Emergency Operations Center and overseen by the state’s Agency for Healthcare Administration.

“They are the ones that are the enforcement of the generator plan,” he said. “After [Hurricane] Irma, there were emergency rules that were passed regarding the requirement of having generators.”