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New York’s Hurricane Dilemma: Shelter From COVID-19 or a Storm

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Isaias is no Sandy. But how do you keep a superstorm from being a super-spreader event?

A man wearing a mask on a bike rides past a highlighter-orange flood barrier.
NYC deployed inflatable flood barriers along a stretch of lower Manhattan ahead of Isaias.
Mark Lennihan/AP

The New York City region is preparing for a pummeling this afternoon, with Tropical Storm Isaias (formerly a hurricane) expected to dump two to four inches of rain in the area along with sustained winds of up to 45 to 55 miles per hour and gusts whipping some 75 miles per hour. Tornadoes are also a possibility. While Isaias brought widespread flooding and power outages all over the Southeast, by the time it gets here, the city expects the storm’s effects to be manageable. But this is just one storm, and we’re moving deeper into a hurricane season that meteorologists expect to be particularly active.

Of course, this is no Superstorm Sandy, which inundated the city’s low-lying neighborhoods and — most spectacularly — plunged downtown Manhattan into darkness. In advance of that storm in 2012, officials evacuated 375,000 people from what was known as Zone A (including the southern tip of Manhattan, Coney Island–Brighton Beach, and Red Hook); today, such an action would run the risk of triggering COVID-19 outbreaks across the city. In the midst of a pandemic, decisions large and small made during a natural disaster are all complicated by fears of contagion.

Leaving a flood-prone neighborhood to temporarily move in with family might expose older relatives to COVID-19. Friends might be wary of letting evacuees into their quarantine bubble. And the more than 1.4 million New Yorkers who are out of work may be unable to afford a hotel room if a storm knocks out power or causes flooding. Under normal circumstances, emergency shelters house evacuees with nowhere else to go, packing hundreds into high-school gyms to sleep on cots mere feet from one another, share public bathrooms, and line up for buffet-style meals — a public-health nightmare.

NYC’s Emergency Management Department would not provide details on how evacuation plans for the city would change in light of the novel coronavirus, or how relief efforts in the days that follow a storm would change. And although officials don’t anticipate needing emergency shelters on Tuesday, nonprofit partners, including the American Red Cross’s New York division, are waiting in the wings if that were to change during Isaias. Ten shelter teams with the group are on standby to deploy those centers. Barry Ritter, a 71-year-old volunteer shelter manager from Inwood, is on one of those teams and stresses that evacuating to a shelter would look far different today than it has in the past.

Upon entering, health screenings for COVID-19 symptoms would be required. Those who are symptomatic or positive for the virus would be isolated. Masks and other protective gear would also be available. Long, densely packed lines at feeding stations are a thing of the past; instead, people would be brought individually packed meals. And, perhaps most important, spacing between cots would increase to maintain social distance. But spreading out means less beds per shelter, and that means more shelters and more staff will be needed depending on the severity of a given storm.

“Preparation and flexibility are key here,” says Ritter. “It’ll be a lot of work. [But] you can only plan so far. Like they say, planning works until you face the enemy.”

Zack Hodgson, the director of the Salvation Army’s Emergency Services’ Greater New York Division (a nonprofit partnered with the city during storms), fears that “enemy” this hurricane season will be unlike any other he’s experienced in his 15-year career.

“This will be very complicated,” says Hodgson, who responded to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and to Hurricane Dorian last year in the Bahamas. “This [season] has come with the most complications that I’ve experienced because it’s forced us to change how we respond at the most basic level.”

For the Salvation Army, which provides food and other emergency services, part of the solution has so far been to “decentralize” how it feeds New Yorkers, relying on grab-and-go meals or drive-through pantry services where workers drop a crate of food into the trunk of a recipient’s car. In an evacuation-shelter setting, Salvation Army staffers would often be the ones clad in protective gear handing out individually boxed meals.

But ensuring that social distance can be maintained and that these communal spaces don’t become COVID-19 hot spots will be a tall order. As Hodgson describes it, “It’s a tricky thing. In emergency-management jargon, we would call it mass care. So how do you do mass care when you can’t create mass?”

For starters, FEMA recommends the use of hotels, classrooms, and empty dormitories as a social-distance alternative to larger shelters. The CDC also urges emergency managers to prioritize hotels, as they offer private bathrooms and usually have individual ventilation systems; many are also wheelchair accessible. FEMA, in theory, would reimburse the city for hotel use through it’s disaster-relief fund, but the city would still be responsible for covering a quarter of the cost, which would be a financial stretch as it grapples with billions in budget shortfalls. Such a scenario is among the safest shelter options, says Hodgson, but it’s only feasible if the “political will” exists to get it done.

Regardless, as new guidance from the American Red Cross puts it, “There are no ‘silver bullets’” and “congregate sheltering will not be avoidable.” But COVID-19 also complicates finding volunteers for these facilities. While the city would spearhead and staff a major coastal evacuation, in the event of a severe storm, additional volunteers with emergency-management experience would be flown in from elsewhere. That’s no longer feasible with COVID-19 restrictions. Skipping a two-week quarantine (depending on where in the country those volunteers are from) due to the emergency would introduce the risk of bringing new infection from elsewhere.

One solution is building up the city’s local base of emergency-ready volunteers. Last week, the Red Cross launched the inaugural Hurricane Season Reserve Corps in New York that’s seeking up to 1,000 volunteers to support emergency shelters. The idea is to have a base of locals at the ready in the neighborhoods that typically most need support when a major storm strikes.

Tropical Storm Isaias weakened Monday night, from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm, as it advanced up the East Coast. But the city is still preparing for the worst. Over the weekend, the city’s emergency-management team began installing large sandbags and filling highlighter-orange tubes with water along a mile-long stretch of lower Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, which the city says could be hit hard in the event of a storm surge. Mayor Bill de Blasio warned New Yorkers at a Tuesday briefing about the storm not to take the inclement weather lightly.

“We’re in a very vigilant state right now,” de Blasio said. “For everyone who lived through Hurricane Sandy, you’ll remember we got a lot more than we bargained for.”