(July 31, 2020) As hurricane season converges with the covid-19 pandemic, Worcester County has modified its evacuation and sheltering plans to reflect the twin threats. Meanwhile Ocean City Emergency Services Director Joe Theobald said a finalized resort plan should be ready sometime next week.
“That’s something we started looking at over the last couple of weeks, because the covid-19 virus certainly impacts the ability to shelter those that may have no place to go during an evacuation,” Theobald said.
Hurricane season begins June 1 and lasts until Nov. 30, with peak season in September, meteorologist Jonathan McGee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
McGee said meteorologists had predicted in late May that the mid-Atlantic region could see an above normal season this year — 60 percent chance of being above normal and a 30 percent chance of being near normal.
“We’ve already gone through a number of named storms already,” McGee said. “We’re off to a busy start this year.”
Meteorologists anticipated 13-19 named storms this year, with six to 10 hurricanes and three to six major hurricanes.
A storm is named once it hits sustained winds of 39 mph or more. Once wind speeds reach 74 mph or more, it’s officially classified as a hurricane.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is currently analyzing a system developing near the Caribbean, though McGee said it was unlikely to significantly affect Maryland’s coast.
With peak season in September, Theobald said the city and county were looking at ways to accommodate covid-19 social distancing and health standards in its evacuation plan.
“The tropical systems are really starting to pick up speed, the waters are warm” he said. “Although, fortunately we’re normally a later season … but anything can happen at anytime and we need to be ready.”
The plan would include, “…increasing the square footage between parties, it’s going to entail doing wellness checks on everybody … how to isolate [a positive evacuee],” Theobald said. “Right now, it’s all very fluid. I hope by the end of next week we have something more in stone.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has changed its square footage requirements from 40 to 110 square feet per resident/client.
“This will result in a 75 percent reduction in available sheltering capacity for all states,” said Billy Birch, Worcester County Emergency Services director.
Historically, the resort relocates its residents off island to Stephen Decatur High School and Middle School, but with spacing requirements, Birch said Snow Hill High School and Pocomoke High School would also be considered, as well as other sites if need be.
“Proof of residency will be needed in the event that the area in which you live sustains extensive damage and is closed to the general public for any period of time,” Birch said.
“Facemasks, sanitizer and hand washing stations will be available at all shelters,” Birch said. “There will also be shelter walk-through to assure that everyone continues to wear masks.”
Arrangements for families with young children and people that can’t wear a mask are being developed, and food will be delivered individually.
While medical personnel will be on site, “No covid-19 testing will be conducted in the shelters. Shelters will include isolation areas in the event that anyone seeking shelter appears to be at risk of covid-19,” Birch said.
Birch also advised residents to prepare a disaster kit that includes non-perishable food, water, batteries and a battery-operated radio, flashlight, sleeping bags, medicine and other necessities.
The resort’s evacuation protocol is broken into four phases.
The last time the city conducted a major evacuation was in 2011 when Hurricane Irene threatened to batter the island.
Mayor Rick Meehan declared a state of emergency, and the resort entered into phase three, which bans the sale of alcohol, shuts down businesses, chokes off incoming traffic and everyone except for emergency personnel are required to leave the island.
“Covid-19 is on the front of our mind and Ocean City is going to do what needs to be done to make sure that evacuations are done safely, people get to where they need to be and we’re factoring covid-19 into that,” Theobald said.
To keep up with current storm systems visit https://www.nhc.noaa.gov . For resort-related hurricane information visit https://oceancitymd.gov/oc/departments/emergency-services/emergency-management/hurricane-information/