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Coronavirus alters hurricane shelter plans

By KIM CHANDLER Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Shelters that open during dangerous hurricanes may look and operate differently this storm season, state emergency officials said, as the new coronavirus complicate response plans.

Across the coastal United States, concerns over COVID-19 has added a new complication to response planning as emergency officials prepare for the hurricane season that officially starts Monday. Forecasters are predicting that it could be a busier than average hurricane season.

Alabama Emergency Management Agency Director Brian Hastings said coronavirus is altering response planning. He said the state will look at opening more shelters, to allow social distancing, or the use of non-congregant sheltering where possible.

“The primary sheltering will now be non-congregant sheltering. That is what we’d like to do in a hurricane but it’s challenging because that may not be an option in all rural areas of Alabama,” Hastings said.

He said the state may need to open more shelters in order to comply with social distancing guidelines.

“Under a COVID environment you are probably going to have to reduce your occupancy,” he said.

The American Red Cross operates evacuation shelters. During 2017′s Hurricane Irma, Florida residents fleeing the storm bunked at the Acadome on the campus of Alabama State University, one of many shelters operated by the Red Cross.

“We are going to have to make safety protocols for people who are coming into the shelter, taking temperatures and making sure everyone has face masks available as well as hand sanitizers and everything,” Annette Rowland, regional director of communications and marketing fir the American Red Cross Alabama-Mississippi.

She said they may look at hotel options.

“Those are two options that we have. One is putting people in hotels instead of opening shelters. And if we open shelters, that we are going to have to consider the social distancing,” Rowland said.

Hastings urged people to being planning now about where they may go if they must evacuate.

And if a dangerous hurricane is churning toward the Alabama coast, people should continue to flee the dangerous storm. Emergency officials gave the same message during tornado season.

“If your life is threatened, you need to seek shelter – regardless of the fear of COVID-19. You really shouldn’t have fear of COVID-19. You should have respect for COVID-19,” Hastings said.

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