FEMA updates emergency guidelines as hurricane season and COVID-19 collide

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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) -- The official start to the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season is Monday. Two tropical storms have already formed, and experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say there's a high chance we see a very active season. In the age of COVID-19, state and local emergency officials are adapting their storm planning and response.

FEMA issues a guidebook for local, state emergency planners as COVID-19 and hurricane season collide. (Source: GrayDC)

FEMA is already leading the national response for this novel coronavirus, and now, it must also help communities that may be impacted by hurricanes and other natural disasters in the months ahead.

Just days ago, FEMA released the COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance for the 2020 Hurricane Season for emergency planners across the country. It's designed as a road map to help officials and non-profits on the ground manage hurricane season.

The guidebook calls for things like considering emergency shelters be set up in hotels, motels and college dorms to allow for social-distancing. Plus, COVID-19 screenings, as well as additional sanitization in shelters. FEMA says government leaders and private companies are working hard to increase access to PPE and other emergency supplies, so storm victims and first-responders are protected. But Administrator Pete Gaynor says there are many challenges as this is a long-term supply-chain issue.

"The majority of personal protective equipment is made offshore," explained Gaynor. "So, we're trying to expand that industrial base because in some cases it is a national security issue."

Another complication from the coronavirus - evacuations - especially for nursing homes, hospitals and other vulnerable communities. FEMA says local and state leaders should factor in evacuations could take much longer and communities may need unprecedented levels of support.

FEMA says the good news is they're starting off with a record $80 billion dollars in disaster relief funds heading into a hurricane season. And since the President declared the pandemic a national disaster, FEMA hired more than 500 new workers. But, Administrator Gaynor says state and local officials still need to lead recovery efforts, while FEMA is there to help.

Because of this pandemic, FEMA says it is more important than ever that you and your family plan now for a possible hurricane. Officials urge you that if you live in an evacuation zone, test out how you'll get out in time now. They also say you should stock up on important emergency supplies for yourself, your family and your pets, which may mean additional items in the age of coronavirus than in previous hurricane seasons. FEMA officials recommend you visit the Ready.gov website to see how you may want to prepare for possible severe weather this season.

Officials at NOAA and FEMA emphasize it's important every American look up what risks their community faces, as inland areas can see dangerous winds and flooding from a tropical storm or a hurricane.

And during a recent call with the press, a FEMA official recommended those who may have to leave their homes consider staying with friends or family outside an evacuation zone. The official says emergency shelters are there for anyone who needs them, but there are many new challenges because of the coronavirus, and you may be more comfortable elsewhere.

Friday morning, President Donald Trump was briefed on "proactive preparations taken by his Administration ahead of the 2020 hurricane season", according to the White House press pool emails. The email to reporters read as follows: "Officials shared that an active season is expected in the Atlantic Ocean and a below average season in the Pacific Ocean. President Trump was updated on the Administration's strategy to safely, effectively, and expeditiously serve Americans this hurricane season through locally executed, State managed, and federally supported emergency response adapted to support the public health guidelines established to address the coronavirus pandemic.

Specifically, the United States Government continues to encourage unprecedented planning and outreach across all levels of government and the private sector to help prepare for and respond to a potentially difficult hurricane season while taking special precautions to address the threat posed by the coronavirus before, during, and in the aftermath of a storm. To confront this threat, the Administration has fully stocked distribution centers with more emergency supplies than in any other year in history and has increased urban search and rescue capabilities and staffing in 22 states. Additionally, FEMA has updated its approach to incident management by formalizing the prioritization of restoring community lifelines after disasters to ensure communities are reopened as quickly as possible.

President Trump was joined in the briefing by First Lady Melania Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Pete Gaynor, Acting National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Director Dr. Neil Jacobs, National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, Deputy Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Resilience Dr. Julia Nesheiwat, and other senior staff."

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