‘More ready than ever before’

FEMA says COVID-19 pandemic prepared it for hurricane season

Residents fill sandbags in preparation for Hurricane Dorian at MacFarlane Park in Tampa on Aug. 29, 2019.
OCTAVIO JONES/TAMPA BAY TIMES/TNS

BY SAMANTHA J. GROSS
MIAMI HERALD/TNS

MIAMI – After months of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic across the nation, the
Federal Emergency Management Agency says it has never been more ready for hurricane season.

“Ninety days of COVID-19 response makes us more ready than ever before,” FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor said Monday at a news conference at the Miami-Dade County Emergency Operations Center in Doral.

Weather experts are predicting another above-average Atlantic hurricane season in 2020, which started June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

Plan for evacuees

Forecasts and models have become more important in a “COVID-19 environment,” where people are paying closer attention to inform their evacuation plan, Gaynor said.

Sheltering options will be altered to ensure social distancing, temperature checks will be required at every hurricane shelter, and evacuees will be given hygiene kits with masks and hand sanitizer at the door.

Gaynor underscored that people should plan on leaving more time to evacuate and prepare this year but ensured that FEMA is prepared to potentially handle two state emergencies at once. He said FEMA’s budget for nationwide response is double what it usually is going into hurricane season — $80 billion versus the typical $40 billion.

Tax holiday savings

The news conference, which also included Gov. Ron DeSantis, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, followed the group’s closed-press tour of the nearby National Hurricane Center.

DeSantis recently made a hurricane-related stop in South Florida when he visited a Boca Raton Home Depot to kick off the start of a sales tax holiday, where shoppers in Florida could avoid paying sales taxes on hurricane preparation supplies ahead of the 2020 season.

The disaster preparedness holiday was passed by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by DeSantis in March as part of a $47.7 million tax package.

The tax holiday, which lasted from June 1 to June 4, saved shoppers $5.6 million, DeSantis said.

Storms already

Florida has so far been spared this hurricane season despite three early named storms. Tropical Storm Cristobal weakened to a tropical depression Monday morning after crashing ashore Sunday in Louisiana.

The storm spawned dangerous weather farther east however, including a Sunday tornado that uprooted trees and downed power lines near Interstate 75 in Central Florida.

The storm also forced a flooded stretch of Interstate 10 in North Florida to close for part of Sunday.

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