N.C.'s hurricane season runs into COVID-19 as active storm season forecasted

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 5/11/20

North Carolina’s position on the Atlantic coast makes it susceptible to hurricanes, and even though Chatham County is more than 150 miles from Wilmington and nearly 180 miles from Morehead City, we’re not been immune to storms striking. And according to forecasters, North Carolina and the rest of the East Coast could be seeing a fairly active hurricane season, creating the possibility of the state facing dual disasters if COVID-19 is still present.

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N.C.'s hurricane season runs into COVID-19 as active storm season forecasted

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North Carolina’s position on the Atlantic coast makes it susceptible to hurricanes, and even though Chatham County is more than 150 miles from Wilmington and nearly 180 miles from Morehead City, we’re not been immune to storms striking.

And according to forecasters, North Carolina and the rest of the East Coast could be seeing a fairly active hurricane season, creating the possibility of the state facing dual disasters if COVID-19 is still present.

Researchers at both N.C. State in Raleigh and Colorado State University project active and even “above-normal” hurricane activity this year. Hurricane season kicks off on June 1 and runs through November 30.

“We anticipate an above-average probability for major hurricanes making landfall along the continental United States coastline and in the Caribbean,” an April report from Colorado state said. “As is the case with all hurricane seasons, coastal residents are reminded that it only takes one hurricane making landfall to make it an active season for them. They should prepare the same for every season, regardless of how much activity is predicted.”

N.C. State’s report said the Atlantic will see 18 to 22 named storms this year, with eight to 11 growing “strong enough to become hurricanes.”

For Steve Newton, Chatham County’s emergency management director, responding to multiple crises is something his people prepare for.

“It’s a compounding event for us,” he said. “One more layer of complexity, one more layer of vulnerability, one more challenge that we get to face — we just add to the stack of problems. It’s not something that’s never been considered.”

Chatham County Emergency Management has been on the frontlines of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in the county, serving as a logistical management team for supplies and personal protective equipment. Newton said his team has already begun working through some of the questions a particularly devastating storm could present: How do shelters work when social distancing is still a good idea? How do you keep a shelter clean and disinfected continually? Will there be enough food when there are already concerns about shortages? What set-up do you put together for people who are COVID-19-positive?

Sheltering is one of the most pressing questions, he said, given that Chatham does not have many options for non-congregate facilities, like dormitories or hotels, to house people displaced by a hurricane.

“Sheltering is not an easy answer to give on any given day,” Newton said. “We will open shelters when necessary, but making that call as to when we activate and where we activate is difficult. Now we have the added risk of putting a lot of people in an added facility.”

He added that he anticipates more of what he terms a “vulnerable population.” He said the county already has one, but current circumstances might increase that.

“They’re either food insecure, housing insecure or employment insecure,” Newton said. “So the folks that would need help, my expectation is there will be more of that, that they will have less capacity on their own.”

The state government says it’s begun preparing for the possibility, and Gov. Roy Cooper declared this past week Hurricane Preparedness Week in North Carolina.

“North Carolina is getting ready for hurricane season even in the midst of a pandemic,” N.C. Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry said in a May 3 press release. “We have responded to simultaneous disasters in the past and will work with our local partners to do so again if needed.”

The state is introducing a new tracking tool this year called “Know Your Zone.” According to a news release, the “tiered evacuation system” will help residents “determine the evacuation zone where you live, work, or are visiting based upon street address” if the state or local authorities mandate an evacuation.

Both state officials and Newton stressed the importance of having an emergency kit ready in case a hurricane sweeps through the state and county. Good kits, the state says, would include, among other items, food and water for every member of your family for several days, copies of valuable insurance and identification documents sealed in a watertight plastic bag, prescription medication, changes of clothes and hygiene items.

Newton said that even though the state is responding to an emergency in COVID-19, Chatham County residents shouldn’t prepare any less or different for hurricane season, which is just around the corner. He stressed paying attention to “local news source(s) for actual actionable information” and generally being prepared.

“This is still hurricane season,” he said. “The things that we promote as far as preparedness — you can avoid disaster by having preparedness at home. If the roads are blocked because of trees or whatever they may be, it’s not an emergency for you because you’re prepared. Those core fundamentals still play out.”

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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