New York’s hurricane dilemma: shelter from the coronavirus or the storm

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The New York City area is bracing for a pounding this afternoon, with Tropical Storm Isaias (formerly a hurricane) expected to dump two to four inches of rain into the area along with sustained winds of up to 45 to 55 miles per hour and gusts whipping around 120 km / h. Tornadoes are also a possibility. While Isaias has caused widespread flooding and blackouts across the southeast, by the time he gets here the city expects the storm’s effects to be manageable. But this is only a storm, and we are moving deeper into a hurricane season that meteorologists expect to be particularly active.

Of course, it’s not about Superstorm Sandy, which flooded the city’s lower districts and – most spectacularly – plunged downtown Manhattan into darkness. Prior to this storm in 2012, authorities evacuated 375,000 people from what was called Area A (including the southern tip of Manhattan, Coney Island – Brighton Beach and Red Hook); today, such action would risk triggering COVID-19 outbreaks across the city. In the midst of a pandemic, decisions large and small made during a natural disaster are all complicated by fears of contagion.

Leaving a flood-prone neighborhood to move in temporarily with family could expose older relatives to COVID-19. Friends might be reluctant to let evacuees enter their quarantine bubble. And the more than 1.4 million unemployed New Yorkers may not be able to afford a hotel room if a storm cuts off electricity or causes flooding. Under normal circumstances, emergency shelters welcome evacuees with nowhere else, packing hundreds into high school gymnasiums to sleep on beds a few feet from each other, share public toilets, and queue for trips. buffet meals – a public health nightmare.

The New York Emergency Management Service would not provide details on how the city’s evacuation plans would change in light of the novel coronavirus, or how relief efforts in the days following a storm. would change. And although officials do not anticipate needing emergency shelter on Tuesday, nonprofit partners, including the New York division of the American Red Cross, are waiting behind the scenes if that were to change during Isaias. Ten teams of shelters with the group are on standby to deploy these centers. Barry Ritter, a 71-year-old volunteer shelter manager from Inwood, is part of one of these teams and points out that evacuation to a shelter would be much different today than it was in the past. .

Upon entry, health examinations for symptoms of COVID-19 would be required. Those who are symptomatic or positive for the virus would be isolated. Masks and other protective equipment would also be available. Long, dense lines at power stations are a thing of the past; instead, people were given individually wrapped meals. And, perhaps most importantly, the spacing between cribs would increase to maintain social distancing. But sprawl means fewer beds per shelter, which means more shelters and more staff will be needed depending on the severity of a given storm.

“Preparation and flexibility are key here,” says Ritter. “It will be a lot of work. [But] you can only plan so far. As they say, planning works until you face the enemy.

Zack Hodgson, the director of the Greater New York emergency services division of the Salvation Army (a nonprofit organization associated with the city during storms), fears that this hurricane season’s “enemy” unlike any other he has known in his 15 year career.

“It will be very complicated,” says Hodgson, who responded to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Dorian last year in the Bahamas. “This [season] came with the most complications that I have encountered, as it has required us to change the way we react at the most basic level.

For the Salvation Army, which provides food and other emergency services, part of the solution so far has been to “decentralize” the way it feeds New Yorkers, relying on on take-out or drive-through pantry services where workers drop off a cash register. of food in the trunk of a recipient’s car. In an evacuation shelter, Salvation Army personnel were often those dressed in protective gear who were distributing individually wrapped meals.

But making sure that social distancing can be maintained and that these common spaces don’t become COVID-19 hotspots will be a tall order. As Hodgson describes, “It’s a delicate thing. In emergency management parlance, we would call it mass care. So how do you take care of mass when you can’t create mass?

For starters, FEMA recommends using empty hotels, classrooms, and dormitories as a socially distanced alternative to larger shelters. The CDC also urges emergency managers to prioritize hotels, as they offer private bathrooms and typically have individual ventilation systems; many are also wheelchair accessible. FEMA, in theory, would reimburse the city for the use of its hotel through its disaster relief fund, but the city would still be responsible for covering a quarter of the costs, which would be a financial burden while ‘She is struggling with billions of dollars in budget deficit. Such a scenario is among the safest shelter options, Hodgson says, but it is only achievable if the “political will” exists to make it happen.

Either way, as the new American Red Cross guidelines say, “there are no ‘silver bullets’” and “collective shelters will not be avoidable”. But COVID-19 also complicates the search for volunteers for these facilities. While the city would spearhead and staff a major coastal evacuation, in the event of a severe storm, additional volunteers with experience in emergency management would be flown in from elsewhere. This is no longer doable with COVID-19 restrictions. Skipping a two-week quarantine (depending on the location of the country of origin of these volunteers) because of the emergency would introduce the risk of bringing a new infection from elsewhere.

One solution is to build the local base of volunteers ready to intervene in the city. Last week, the Red Cross launched the first hurricane season reserve corps in New York City, which is looking for up to 1,000 volunteers to support emergency shelter. The idea is to have a ready-to-use base of residents in neighborhoods that typically need support the most during a major storm.

Tropical Storm Isaias weakened Monday night from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm, moving up the east coast. But the city is always preparing for the worst. Over the weekend, the city’s emergency management team began installing large sandbags and filling orange highlighter tubes with water along a mile-long stretch of along the South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan, which the city says could be hit hard in the event of a storm surge. . Mayor Bill de Blasio warned New Yorkers at a storm briefing Tuesday not to take inclement weather lightly.

“We are in a very vigilant state at the moment,” said de Blasio. “For anyone who lived through Hurricane Sandy, you will remember that we had a lot more than we bargained for.”

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