What if a major hurricane struck a flood-prone city during a deadly pandemic? Sounds like the pitch for a disaster movie, but it could be a reality Charleston will face as hurricane season heats up.
"This is a very challenging year," said Shannon Scaff, the city's emergency management director. "There is a very real risk here when you deal with water, which we know is the main killer of a hurricane, and then you introduce into that mix a pandemic."
Local and state governments have reevaluated some traditional hurricane plans to follow social distancing protocols during the pandemic, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts an "extremely active" season in the Atlantic.
Possibly the most noteworthy change in Charleston County's 2020 hurricane plans is a large decrease in shelter spots available to comply with social distancing guidelines. Across the six shelters in the county, 634 people can be housed during a hurricane. In the 2019 hurricane season, 3,473 people could find shelter in county facilities. Citizens are also required to wear face masks in shelters.
"We simply do not have the places we would normally have for people who are seeking shelter," Scaff said. "It becomes a regional issue, a state issue. What if we had something worse than Dorian? What if we had Hugo but it wasn't McClellanville, it was the peninsula? We're going to need to get people out of here and we're going to need to do it safely."
In shelters, officials will attempt to provide personal protective equipment and temperature checks for people seeking refuge.
The state's emergency COVID-19 hurricane response contingency plan suggests using both traditional shelters and "non-congregate" shelters, structures where households have individual living spaces, such as hotels. Charleston County's six shelters are schools, but allow 110 square feet per occupant, according to their hurricane operations guide.
Scaff said management has worked to identify other shelter locations across the state. "It's everything from Dorchester County to Orangeburg County to places way up north in the upper part of the state," he said.
Potentially, 807,167 individuals will need to be evacuated from recommended evacuation zones.
While it's unknown what the COVID-19 pandemic will look like later in hurricane season, experts do expect mask ordinances to help curb the number of cases in South Carolina. Current projections from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control estimate that daily infection numbers will steadily drop to below 500 through October if mandates are maintained.
If COVID-19 ordinances are eased up, DHEC said the numbers will remain as high as they are now before increasing in October.
Charleston County maintains one of the highest rates of COVID-19 cases in S.C. and has the highest number of cases in a county, with 12,353 as of Monday.
Danielle Scheurer, Medical University of South Carolina's chief quality officer, said a hurricane may reduce the spread of COVID-19 "since most people stay home." But, as far as major evacuations go, she did acknowledge, "Displacing a 'hot spot' population does have the potential to spread COVID."
Scaff recommends citizens prepare a bag to evacuate quickly and not wait until the last minute to evacuate. NOAA has an extensive list of ways to prepare for hurricanes online. They encourage people in the way of a storm to make a disaster supplies kit, which includes a three-day supply of non-perishable food, a flashlight, backup batteries for cell phones and one gallon of water per person per day for three days.