Storm shelter managers work pandemic guidelines into shelter plans

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PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — Planning for a hurricane is already a stressful process, but add a pandemic to the mix and it’s even more complicated. 

It’s a challenge that local and state leaders have been working for months to figure out, taking social-distancing, capacity limits and personal protective equipment into consideration when it comes to storm shelters.

“It becomes pretty tight pretty quick,” said Ivan Beach, principal of Deane Bozeman School which is one of the Bay District Schools campuses used as a shelter. Beach was at the shelter during Hurricane Michael and remembers the tight squeeze. 

“The general population was in our gymnasium,” he said. “The majority of the 700 people were in the gym.”

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic makes a situation like that unsafe.

“It’s definitely a little bit mindblowing to think about all of the layers that the pandemic has added,” said Sharon Michalik, Director of Communication for Bay District Schools. BDS partners with Bay County Emergency Management to run the shelters in the area. 

They’ve been working since the pandemic started to prepare a new plan.

“We had to add the extra step of temperature checks in the parking lot,” Michalik said.

Those with fevers will be directed to an isolated area of the shelter or to non-congregate shelters, potentially hotels partnering with the county.

“Once the people are in the shelter, then of course we’re having to spread out much more and use much more of the school campus than we initially envisioned,” Michalik added. 

This includes classrooms, giving families their own spaces. Shelter staff and evacuees will be given PPE if they don’t already have it. When it comes to meals, they’re looking to do the grab-and-go style they’ve been doing for families in the area through Chartwells. 

But before all of this, local leaders are asking residents to try to make plans to find shelter with friends and family elsewhere if possible. 

“Try to come up with a plan A that takes them out of the area and puts them in an area of safety,” said Frankie Lumm, the Bay County Emergency Management Division Chief. “Then we’ll be prepared to take care of them if they stay here in Bay County.”

They said it’s best to make emergency plans now before any kind of storm arrives, due to the extra layers of planning the pandemic adds to the equation. For updates on incoming storms and storm shelters from the county, download the AlertBay app by clicking here.

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