HONOLULU – The first hurricane to threaten the United States since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic presents new challenges for Hawaiian officials long accustomed to tropical storms.
For example, how do you ensure sufficient shelter when people have to stay at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) from each other? What happens when a person comes to a shelter with a fever?
Hurricane Douglas was located 1,070 kilometers southeast of Hilo on Friday evening. It was blowing maximum sustained winds of 185 km / h (185 km / h), making it a Category 3 hurricane.
It is expected to weaken upon passing over cooler water. But meteorologists warn that strong winds, heavy rain and dangerous waves could plague the entire state from Saturday night.
Douglas is expected to have a force close to the hurricane as it approaches the islands.
The National Weather Service has issued a hurricane watch for Big Island, Oahu and Maui County, which means hurricane conditions are possible in those areas within 36 to 48 hours.
The storm is approaching as Hawaii grapples with rising numbers of COVID-19. The state reported 60 newly confirmed cases on Friday, its largest increase in a day since the start of the pandemic.
“I never thought in 30 years of doing this that I would answer medical questions,” said John Cummings, the public information office of Honolulu Emergency Management, noting the strange situation the authorities found themselves in.
Unlike other hurricane-prone states like Florida, where locals cram into cars to evacuate as storms approach, leaving Hawaii to escape a storm is inconvenient. Shelter space is also limited.
So, as usual, local authorities are urging most people to take shelter in their homes if they can. Those who live in houses built to code after 1995 should be “good enough to leave,” Cummings said.
He recommended staying with friends and family if the house is unsafe. Seek refuge in an interior room, he said. Going to a city-run shelter should be a last resort, he said.
In shelters, evacuees will have their temperature checked for signs that they could be infected with the coronavirus. People who have quarantined themselves, either because they recently traveled to Hawaii from out-of-state or because they were exposed to someone infected with the virus, can go to a refuge if their housing situation is not secure.
Those with high temperatures or with a history of travel will either be isolated at this shelter or taken to another site, Cummings said.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said that in a “non-pandemic world,” the city is preparing 10 square feet (1 square meter) per person in shelters. But to have 6 feet (1.8 meters) of physical distance between people, you need to allow 60 square feet (6 square meters) per person or family.
“We need more shelter space. And with more space in the shelters, we need more people to staff those shelters. And we’re working on it right now, ”Caldwell said. The city plans to announce a list of shelters on Friday.
Hawaiian leaders have discussed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency the possibility of accommodating the evacuees in hotels, but nothing concrete has been decided yet. Caldwell said such an arrangement might not fall into place in time for Douglas’ arrival, but could be in place for the next storm.
Many hotels in Hawaii have empty rooms or are completely closed because the pandemic has cut off most travel to the islands.
State officials have been urging residents for months to incorporate hand sanitizer and face masks into their usual emergency kits containing two weeks of food, water, batteries and other supplies.
Caldwell urged people to shop for groceries for those who cannot afford grocery shopping for 14 days at a time as so many residents are out of work due to the pandemic.
“This is the time to look at ourselves as one great ohana working with each other,” Caldwell said, using the Hawaiian word for family.
On Thursday in Hilo, Ace Hardware supervisor Adrian Sales reported a “significant increase” in the number of people looking for lanterns, propane and other supplies.
“We already have no butane stoves, and the sandbags are gone as well,” Sales said. “It’s a little hard to keep things on the shelves.”
Food shoppers were slower to materialize at The Locavore store in Hilo.
Owner Catarina Zaragoza has predicted that people will start buying toilet paper and water if the storm looks threatening and approaches.
“A lot of our storms clear before we get here, so I think if we’re going to see that kind of rise, it probably won’t be until later this weekend,” she said.
People stocked up when the pandemic started, but Zaragoza doubts that was the reason people weren’t buying.
Associated Press reporter Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska contributed to this report.
Audrey McAvoy, The Associated Press