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Jacksonville Prepares For Hurricane Season With COVID-19 Strategies In Mind

person on a boat in the street, where flooding has overtaken everything in sight in a residential San Marco neighborhood.
Jessica Palombo
Hurricane Irma storm surge flooding San Marco homes.

With the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season starting June1, the Jacksonville City Council is discussing preparation plans if a storm system heads to Northeast Florida. 

This year, city officials also have to account for the possibility of a hurricane during the COVID-19 pandemic, which may mean opening more shelters.

Related: NOAA Predicts Above-Average Hurricane Season with 13-19 Named Storms

“Currently without COVID-19, we allocate 20 square feet per person, which really isn't much when you think about it,” said Steven Woodard, the director of the Emergency Preparedness Division (EPD). “The recommended space multiplies that by about five, to anywhere between 100 square feet, and 110 square feet.”

Woodard said there are up to 29 shelters that could already open up. The EPD is identifying other possible locations. Based on previous hurricane evacuations, he said he’s confident the city can handle a sheltered population during the pandemic. 

People that do go to a shelter will have to undergo health screenings before entering, and they would be given sanitization equipment.  

Woodard said his team at the EPD has been preparing for the mixture of hurricane season and COVID-19 for months.

Related: Local, State, And National Coronavirus Coverage

“Not only have we learned about the risks, but how to mitigate those and how to address them,” Woodard said. 

Many of the shelters are at Duval County schools, which will also have to implement extra precautions for COVID-19. 

The school district will designate certain shelters as COVID-19 facilities for those who have tested positive but don’t need to be held in a hospital. If that’s not possible because of timing, each shelter will have an area for people to self-isolate.

Before entering the shelters, people will need to get their temperatures checked and will be provided a surgical mask. 

To keep the schools as clean as possible while people are sheltered, the school district will bring in additional janitorial personnel.

“So they’ll be, on a regular basis, washing down things, cleaning door handles and areas that have been touched a lot,” said Michael Edwards, the Director of the Duval County Schools Police Department. 

When a hurricane threat has passed, Superintendent Diana Greene said the district will need additional time to disinfect the schools. If classes are in session, they’ll implement Duval Home Room, the virtual learning systems students have been using during the pandemic. 

JEA has also created a COVID-19 Hurricane Preparedness Task Force to address incidents like power outages and having sufficient supplies while accounting for public health and safety. 

Next week, the utility will run its annual hurricane exercise with the EPD, National Weather Service and Northeast Florida Regional Council. 

Councilwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson said while it’s important for emergency personnel to inform areas of the community where flooding will most likely happen, building up trust with the community is even more essential. 

“They’re not going to hear us in times of an exigent circumstance or an emergency if we don’t meet with them in advance and talk about the plans,” Priestly Jackson said. 

Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman said there needs to be a proactive approach to getting important information out to vulnerable communities.

“A lot of the neighborhoods in Zone One, there have been a lot of broken promises over the years, and we want to make this right,” Pittman said. 

Map that is color-coded showing the different evacuation zones.
Credit Via City of Jacksonville website and map
Current evacuation zones for Duval County.

The EPD plans to roll out a hurricane preparedness guide in June, along with information on COVID-19, to over 430,000 addresses in Jacksonville, according to Woodard. 

Director of Jacksonville Public Works John Pappas said there have been a number of improvements to drainage systems and bridges to better prepare for strong storms. 

But more resiliency changes are needed. 

“I can tell you: for Hurricane Matthew, we got hit by about 12 inches of rain, and Hurricane Irma was about 20 inches of rain that hit the city,” Pappas said. “I can tell you our city collection systems are designed for about 6 1/2  inches of rain.”

The city is also waiting on money from FEMA that it exhausted to make repairs in the aftermath. Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department Chief Keith Powers said the city is still waiting to be reimbursed about $28 million from Matthew, and roughly $37 million from Irma. 

Pappas said the city-wide resiliency study to determine how the city’s infrastructure will fare against sea level rise and changing environmental conditions will be completed by the end of the year. 

“We're hopeful by next year when we go before budget, we'll have our first list of resiliency projects prioritized for discussion, and hopefully moving those forward,” Pappas said.

Councilman Matt Carlucci is leading efforts with a Special Committee on Resiliency to discuss those and other findings. 

Meanwhile, the city has adopted an Adaptation Action Area from a previous committee’s findings, which extends the high hazard areas of coastal flooding and takes into account flooding that can come from the St. Johns River. 

Sky Lebron can be reached at, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at@SkylerLebron.

Former WJCT News reporter