Preparing for hurricane season takes a lot of planning, and the pandemic makes that even tougher. But officials in New Orleans say they’re taking extra precautions to limit the spread of the coronavirus during evacuations and sheltering, if and when those steps are necessary.
New Orleans Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Director Collin Arnold listed some of those steps in a presentation to the New Orleans City Council’s Emergency Preparedness and Cybersecurity Committee Tuesday afternoon, not long after Tropical Storm Cristobal formed in the Gulf of Mexico.
The city estimates 35,000 to 40,000 New Orleans residents would not be able to evacuate themselves if necessary. If an evacuation is called for, Arnold said, all city-assisted evacuees will be given personal protective equipment.
“From the time a person walks up to an Evacuspot and utilizes this service they will be put into an N95 medical-grade mask,” he said.
To allow for social distancing in transit, Arnold said the city has upped the number of buses it will use, for a total of 850. He said sneeze-guard partitions will separate drivers from the rest of the bus.
Shelters will also look a little different in order to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. Arnold said their physical layouts will be tweaked to allow for more social distancing, and that state officials are working to add shelter locations to allow for reduced capacities at each one.
Arnold assured the council that the concept of social distancing at shelters is not new.
“When we shelter medically, which happens every year to a certain extent, there are social distancing guidelines that they do in the medical process,” he said. “This would just be continued for everyone.”
If officials decide an evacuation is necessary, they’ll likely make the call much earlier than usual, since the evacuation process will likely take longer due to the additional measures.
Arnold emphasized that hurricanes represent a much more immediate threat to human life than COVID-19 does, and that people should not try to ride out a storm out of fear of coming into contact with the virus.
Still, Arnold said an evacuation could create a spike in COVID-19 cases.
“And so we will have to deal with a potential spike after [an evacuation], and we’ll deal with it the same way we’ve done now since March.”
He said contact tracing will play an important role as residents return to their homes.
Mississippi River Shouldn’t Be An Issue This Hurricane Season
One complication that likely won’t be at play this hurricane season is the threat of a flooding Mississippi River.
As Hurricane Barry approached the city last year, the Mississippi River was still elevated, and for a few days there was concern that any storm surge pushed upstream from the Gulf could have forced the river to overtop its banks in several locations. But as Barry tracked elsewhere, the storm surge felt on the river was much smaller than feared.
This year, the river is about eight feet lower than it was at the same time in 2019, Jeff Graschel, a forecaster at NOAA’s Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center, said on a press call Monday.
Due to recent rain in the Midwest, the river is expected to rise another one or two feet for the next two weeks or so, Graschel said, but is expected to slowly decline starting in mid-June.
“So we really have probably seen our peak that we’ve had for this season, at least on the lower part of the Mississippi River,” he said.
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