The ninth named storm of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is set to hit Maine on Tuesday night, but emergency management planners have been preparing for months to handle the additional complexity of the coronavirus pandemic.
Major concerns include potential evacuations to congregate settings, whether they be cooling stations used for a few hours during the summer or overnight shelters used in wind or ice storms. The virus could spread easily in those settings if the virus resurges in Maine, which has the second-lowest per-capita case rates among states, according to The New York Times.
Emergency management agencies don’t expect the current storm, Isaias, to require shelters as it has been downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm. But winter storms could pose challenges because the coronavirus will require social distancing and limits to shelter occupancy.
“You can’t put people in congregate settings without additional steps in the winter,” said Maine Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Susan Faloon.
The American Red Cross, which sets up the shelters, is using guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that require each person to have 110 square feet of space, Faloon said. Typically, a shelter allows between 40 and 60 square feet per person, she said. The Red Cross also has provided advice to states on non-congregate sheltering.
The Red Cross and emergency management agencies are advising those needing shelter to first use non-congregate settings like hotels or motels. But if the only option is congregate sheltering, the Red Cross will use CDC guidelines for social distancing, hygiene, medical screening and isolation.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has policies in place for states and cities with options for sheltering, said FEMA Region 1 Administrator Russ Webster.
“That flexibility is going to allow a state to activate a previous alternate care site that they have for COVID-19,” he said.
In Maine the Red Cross would isolate anyone in a congregate shelter found to be positive in a designated area of the shelter until that person could be housed in a motel or hotel, where they also would be screened before entry, Faloon said. The isolation would conform to CDC practices. Each person, including staff, entering a shelter will be medically screened first. Feeding and snack services will be done in a grab-and-go fashion rather than delivered buffet style as had been the case in the past.
The fast-moving storm is expected to have the most impact on coastal areas and western Maine between 8 p.m. and midnight Tuesday, bringing wind gusts of up to 50 mph and a potential for tornadoes and localized flooding, said Maine Emergency Management Agency Director Peter Rogers.
Hurricanes are rare in Maine. In 2011 Hurricane Irene, which was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached Maine, resulted in a disaster declaration for several counties in Maine. Hurricane season runs from the beginning of June through the end of November.
The biggest threats to people from hurricanes are flooding and high winds, said Webster. He said residents should know where their shelters are ahead of time and prepare a kit that includes basic supplies, copies of flood and life insurance policies, two masks, hand sanitizer, medicines and pet food. They should check ahead of time to make sure their local shelter allows pets.