'Risks of storm surge far outweigh risks of COVID,' emergency director warns

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Palm Beach County Director of Emergency Management Bill Johnson, addressing county commissioners, as seen Tuesday on the County's Channel 20. (Courtesy: Channel 20)

For several months now, local leaders have known of the possibility they would be dealing with both tropical weather systems and the pandemic at the same time.

Now we have our wake-up call, as current forecasts show Potential Tropical Cyclone 9 headed toward South Florida.

The system still lies hundreds of miles away, but featured heavily in a briefing Tuesday from Palm Beach County's Director of Emergency Management Bill Johnson.

“No one should hesitate to evacuate, because of COVID,” Johnson told county commissioners, reminding evacuation zones here are based on the potential for storm surge. "With the measures that we have put in place, the risks of storm surge far outweigh the risks of COVID in a hurricane scenario."

With the possibility COVID-19 would still pose a threat during this year’s storm season, local counties have been busy planning for socially distanced shelters and pinning down additional locations.

“We will be screening everyone on entry,"Johnson said. "Anyone that screens positively, if you will, for potential illness, we will create an area of isolation.... We ask that people bring their own masks, as well as hand sanitizers.”

Last summer, South Florida residents watched in horror as Hurricane Dorian hammered the islands to the east.

Johnson said Palm Beach County has a strong building code, so unless told to evacuate, people should shelter in place. If you need to leave, Johnson said stay within the county.

“Have a disaster kit that’s filled with all kinds of supplies, and you should be just fine sheltering in place,” he said.

And be ready to stay hunkered down for a storm and the aftermath, which could go on several days.

“We used to recommend (having) three day’s supply, but I’m starting to think five- to seven-day supply should be the norm now,” Johnson said.

No need to go panic-buying, but at this point in the year, we should all have our hurricane kits ready.