U.S. adds social distancing to Atlantic hurricane season emergency response plan

FILE PHOTO: A man rides his bike along America Street during Hurricane Dorian in Charleston, South Carolina, U.S., September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Randall Hill

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – With the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season fast approaching, U.S. officials on Thursday said they were readying more buses, hotel rooms and shelter space for social distancing to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus during potential evacuations.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said in a telephone briefing that it anticipated a higher-than-average number of storms during the U.S. storm season beginning on June 1. It urged states and cities to step up their preparations.

“COVID will make it a little more difficult,” FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor said, referring to the disease caused by the virus. “We’re asking local leaders to think about how they will manage evacuating and shelter. You’re going to need extra space.”

Last year, there were about 15 hurricane-related deaths in the United States, and at least 70 in the Bahamas, where Hurricane Dorian caused billions of dollars in damage.

COVID-19 has killed more than 73,000 people in the United States in the past two months.

In partnership with the American Red Cross, FEMA said it was preparing to house more evacuees in hotel rooms where families can stay, instead of packing them into shelters. They are also working to provide more buses to transport evacuees to avoid tight conditions.

An official estimate on the number of storms during the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, which runs through Nov. 30, is expected to be released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on May 21.

But several forecasters see a more active season than average, with 18 named tropical storms and eight hurricanes.

Last year there were 12 named storms of which, seven strengthened into hurricanes, including two major ones, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The most deadly storm was Dorian, which ravaged the Bahamas, killed scores and left whole communities obliterated.

Gaynor said FEMA had more money than ever going into the hurricane season, with $6 billion devoted to federal response to the pandemic that officials could on draw on, as well as $80 billion remaining in disaster relief funds.

Brad Kieserman, vice president for disaster operations and logistics at the American Red Cross, said his organization had reserved more than 20,000 overnight stays at thousands of hotels.

“I can’t reinforce enough: our goal collectively is to keep people safe,” he said.

FEMA is also working to provide more face masks and other protective gear to help states fight COVID-19, as many hospitals and other U.S. facilities struggle to maintain enough masks and protective gear.

FEMA is also working with states to maximize each state’s ability to test for the virus, Gaynor said, but each state must decide how many people get tested.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Tom Brown)

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