St. John’s County Emergency Management updates disaster preparedness plan to make room for COVID-19

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Riding the coattails of COVID-19 is Florida’s infamous hurricane season which lasts until Nov. 30, St. Johns County Emergency Management prepping for the worst while making fundamental changes to its disaster preparedness to accommodate social distancing during a storm.

Linda Stoughton, director emergency management for St Johns county, said to plan for the worst while hoping for the best. The first step, as always, is solid preparation.

“The more planning you do prior to any time of hazard you're going to recover quicker,” Stoughton said. “We've seen that through the last couple hurricanes we've had that businesses, individuals or government that have had their plans in place and practiced them, recover quicker.”

Importantly, she encourages everyone to check up on their insurance plans and become fully aware of the extent of their coverage. Flood insurance, even if not by necessity, is vital during a storm. Businesses, who’ve already been hit big by COVID-19 need to upgrade their policies in the event of a fatal blow this season.

“Businesses are a very important part of our community and they have gone through a lot, not just with COVID-19 but with Hurricane Dorian at the end of 2019,” Stoughton said. “When we have to do a mandatory evacuation, it closes those businesses for a period of time whether they receive damage or not. If they are not able to return to the actual location, having an alternate plan where they could access the records or have their contracts is important.” 

Additionally, business owners can visit the Chamber of Commerce’s website for contingency plan information.

Socially distanced shelters are also a new feature the county is implementing in the case of a crisis. The county has 15 possible locations, with six-eight shelters expected to be utilized. Prior to COVID-19, spacing between occupants had been 20 square feet for each evacuee. Emergency management has increased shelter space to 60 square feet for each person, with additional spacing inside each shelter space for isolating individuals expressing symptoms or with a fever. 

Stoughton said in the past hurricanes, Mathew, Irma and Dorian, Emergency Management only had two shelters meet capacity, making them confident that adding the additional square footage per person will be effective.

The county is also preparing for increased sanitation measures, socially distancing the St. Johns County school buses used for transportation during the storm and asking residents to add face masks and hand sanitizer to their supply kits.

For those that fell short on supply during the COVID-19 shut down, Stoughton said they are also asking residents to increase their supply kits to meet seven days, rather than three or five days as they did in the past.

“What we've learned through the past storms is that people actual need to have more supplies in their disaster kit,” Stoughton said. “There may be a longer period of time before grocery stores can reopen. It may be a period of time before resources come into the community.”

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