COVID-19 impacts hurricane preparations

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Every year, county officials remind the public of the need to prepare for possible hurricanes. This year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, some new elements have been added.

Kelly Wilson, the county’s interim deputy director of emergency management, spoke on storm preparation Wednesday, July 15, during a virtual meeting of the Ponte Vedra Beach Division of the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce. She led members on a tour of the go-to website for information vital to residents and businesses.

Perhaps the biggest changes this year have been brought about by the ongoing need to remain safe from the coronavirus.

In addition to having an adequate supply of food and water for three to seven days, Wilson recommended residents have lots of soap, hand sanitizer and disposable masks.

Evacuation shelters, too, will be taking extra precautions. They will have additional hand-sanitizing and cleaning and may ask people seeking shelter to wear a facial covering.

“We are taking steps regarding our sheltering to ensure social distancing,” Wilson said. “In the past, we may have opened five or six shelters. Now, we have to cut capacity in half. We’re going to have to open additional shelters so we have less people in each shelter.”

She pointed out that businesses can apply what they learned during the recent shutdown, when many employees had to work from home. Those same lessons can be adapted to help businesses function should a hurricane strike.

The greater portion of Wilson’s presentation, however, was devoted to explaining features found on the county emergency management site.

Residents can find out if they are in an evacuation zone by clicking on the My Evacuation Zone tool. They can get information on the county’s 15 shelters, including which ones are for people with special needs and which ones are pet-friendly.

The WeatherSTEM tool provides weather information in real time.

“There is actually a WeatherSTEM unit that will give you a live broadcast and feed from the South Ponte Vedra fire station, Station 9,” Wilson said.

The site also allows residents to download the information-packed hurricane guide. It’s also the place to go to sign up for Alert St. Johns, which replaced the Code Red system last year.

“The Alert St. Johns notification system is how we will get in touch with you,” Wilson said.

Residents who sign up will receive notifications either on their phones or by text or email.

Wilson recommended residents and businesses take action now to prepare. Businesses should formulate a plan that will include such considerations as preserving documents, plans for working remotely, alternative means for access to digital data, plans to contact employees, reviewing insurance policies and protecting company vehicles.

Now is also the time to register at special-needs shelters for those who might have to go there. Residents and businesses should also consider purchasing flood insurance.

For more information, go to sjcemergencymanagement.com and click on Emergency Management.

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