Changes to hurricane shelters amid the coronavirus pandemic

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MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) – Local and state emergency leaders are dealing with uncharted territory when it comes to hurricane preparations amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I can say we haven’t faced anything this large,” said Thomas Bell, Horry County emergency management spokesperson. “The hard thing with the pandemic is everything we plan for is based on past experiences, past storms because we don’t have a blue print going forward of best practices, that’s what makes this challenging.”

The pandemic is forcing a re-evaluation of hurricane response, especially when it comes to evacuations.

The Red Cross operates shelters and has new guidelines to keep people safe from the storm and the virus.

They hope to first place people in hotels, dorms, or even campgrounds before “congregate shelters” like schools and community centers, but those are inevitable with large scale storms.

“If we have to open up a shelter like that, we’re going to be doing approved screening. You’re going to get your temperature taken when you come in, you’re going to be asked those CDC approved questions, and if you have symptoms, you’re going to be isolated. There’ll be isolation areas in those shelters,” said Ben Williamson, Red Cross Spokesperson.

The Red Cross said it will be doing extra cleaning, workers will have PPE, and they’ll provide masks for people staying in the shelter. They’re also ensuring social distancing.

“Have the cots spread out more, we’re going to be staggering meal time,” said Williamson.

That means shelter capacity could be cut significantly and more shelters would have to open. Horry County has four main shelters it opens during a hurricane and has more on reserve.

The total max capacity of the four shelters is 5,000. At the height of Hurricane Florence Horry County said they it had just over 2,000 people.

County leaders think fewer people who live outside of evacuation zones will leave.

“We’re probably expecting more of them to stay home knowing that the pandemic is still probably going to be going on at that point,” said Bell.

County officials said they’re considering starting evacuations earlier. While things may look different this year, planning ahead is always crucial.

“If you live along the coast, have a conversation with your family that lives farther inland or in a different state and say hey if we’re evacuated can we come stay with you guys? These are the conversations as a family you need to have,” said Williamson.

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