The Federal Emergency Management Agency is taking the unprecedented step of trying to minimize the number of people who evacuate their homes before a hurricane to prevent spreading the coronavirus in shelters.
A FEMA guidance brochure published yesterday says that state and local officials should consider narrowing their evacuation orders "to reduce the number of people voluntarily evacuating from areas outside a declared evacuation area."
The guidance also suggests that local officials should tell residents to avoid community shelters and instead stay with friends or relatives if they are forced to evacuate.
Residents who are not under an evacuation order should be told to stay at home, FEMA wrote in a 59-page "COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guide for the 2020 Hurricane Season" aimed at helping state and local officials navigate the hurricane season that begins June 1.
The brochure offers state and local officials a wide range of guidance on handling disasters while the COVID-19 pandemic persists and explains how FEMA will respond to hurricanes and other incidents in the coming months.
It also offers a candid warning as the Trump administration and governors push to reopen the economy: "The Nation is facing unprecedented challenges as we respond to additional disasters, anticipate emergent incidents, and prepare for the 2020 hurricane season."
FEMA’s guidance on evacuations, written with NOAA and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, departs from traditional advice urging evacuation, as well as the message authorities gave in March and April when they advised people facing tornado warnings to go to shelters despite the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.
A March 22 statement by NOAA’s National Weather Service and the Alabama Department of Public Health told residents that "your first priority should be to protect yourself from a potential tornado. If a warning is issued for your area, you are more likely to be affected by the tornado than the virus."
Tornadoes this year have been unusually lethal in the United States, killing 74 people, which is nearly twice the number of tornado-related fatalities in all of 2019.
The evacuation guidance comes as state officials and the American Red Cross scramble to find alternatives to shelters — such as hotel rooms and dormitories — that will be both safer for and more appealing to people considering whether to evacuate due to an approaching hurricane, wildfire or other disaster.
As authorities seek to minimize the number of people in community shelters, they also are planning to allocate roughly twice as much space for each individual to maintain social distancing.
The Red Cross, which operates many disaster shelters, plans to provide 110 square feet per person instead of the customary 50 to 60 square feet, which will reduce the number of people who can fit in a shelter.
FEMA says in its guidance that local officials can emphasize the possible risk of going to a community shelter as part of their strategy to encourage people to stay with friends or relatives or to stay at home. The guidance includes public messages that state and local officials can use for public communication.
One message suggested by FEMA says, "Due to limited space as a result of COVID-19, public evacuation shelters may not be the safest choice for you and your family. … Only evacuate to shelters if you are unable to shelter at home or with family or friends."
Another suggested message says, "Unless you live in a mandatory evacuation zone, it is recommended that you make a plan to shelter-in-place in your home, if it is safe to do so."
And another message says, "If you live in a mandatory evacuation zone, make a plan with friends or family to shelter with them where you will be safer and more comfortable."
FEMA also said in the guidance that it will minimize its own presence at disaster sites by conducting many operations remotely, such as enrolling individuals in disaster-aid programs and assessing damage from a disaster.
"While COVID-19 morbidity and mortality persist, FEMA will generally minimize the number of personnel deploying to disaster-impacted areas," the agency wrote.