Ever since COVID-19 reached Pinellas County, residents have been asking what we’ll do if we get a hurricane this year. While the thought of facing a storm while we’re trying to stay safe during a pandemic is not comfortable for any of us, our Emergency Management team has been planning for the possibility for months. Now that we’re a month or so into hurricane season, we all need to be thinking about how we should account for COVID-19 in our hurricane preparations.

We’re preparing to provide social distancing at our shelters to the extent possible. That has required us to identify additional sheltering space, and we’re continuing with that process. If you are a business or church that has a building that would be safe during a storm, we ask that you consider offering it for sheltering. In fact, you can reach out to me directly at the contact information provided below.

If we need public shelters this year, we’re going to do our best to screen people for COVID-19 at the entrances. We’ll do temperature checks and ask questions. Everyone who comes in will have a mask. We’ll try to assign people to different rooms to maximize distancing. We’re also planning for enhanced sanitization, including hand sanitizing stations, and we’ll have extra masks on hand if citizens arrive without their own. For anyone who may be COVID-19 positive, we’ll first inquire as to whether they can safely shelter at home or at another site. If not, we maybe be able to provide a non-congregate site to shelter them safety during the storm. We also know that many people have been impacted economically by COVID-19, and we’re working with our amazing feeding partners in the county to find additional supplies to help people in need.

If you’re in an evacuation zone, we’re asking that you try to make arrangements to stay with family or friends before turning to a public shelter. You should know your evacuation zone, which is different from your flood zone in that it is based on storm surge risk rather than flooding. To find your evacuation zone, visit http://www.pinellascounty.org/emergency/knowyourzone.htm, or download the Pinellas County app to your smartphone. If you are a Pinellas County Utilities customer, you can find your zone on your bill.

If you have special needs, sign up for our special needs registry by calling (727) 464-3800 or visiting www.pinellascounty.or/specialneeds to download a form. Whether you need specialized transportation to help with evacuation, or you have a specific medical needs, or you will be accompanied by a caretaker, we have a program you can sign up for.

As in any year, you should be putting together a “go” or “stay” kit based on where you would shelter during a hurricane. This year, your go kit should include masks for everyone in your family, hand sanitizer and wipes to keep the area around you clean. Don’t forget any medication that you take. Remember: public shelters do not have cots or generators, and the space you will be able to utilize is limited. Prepare by bringing a one-person air mattress, books and activities, a fan, earplugs, a covering for your eyes for sleeping and hygiene items. Bring food if you are on a special diet.

If you plan to shelter at home, your supplies should include a weather radio, flashlights with fresh batteries, one gallon of water per person per day, medications, non-perishable foods and important documents. You may want to have a couple of tarps in case your roof is breached. Some people keep a backup generator on hand.

One of the most important steps to take is to stay informed. One of the best ways to do that is to sign up for Alert Pinellas at http://www.pinellascounty.org/alertpinellas/, which will ensure that you’ll receive official county information sent straight to your phone. Follow the storm projections on your favorite local television station.

There are many years when we go through hurricane season without a major storm. We certainly hope this such a year. But hope is not an effective preparedness strategy. So let’s hope for the best and prepare for anything that may come our way. As always, if you have questions or comments, you can reach me at (727) 464-3363 or cjustice@pinellascounty.org.