N.C. governor: Hurricane brings "double trouble" with virus

Gov. Roy Cooper gets ready to give an update on North Carolina’s preparations for Hurricane Isaias in Raleigh on Friday. Behind him is director of Emergency Management Mike Sprayberry.

The threat from a fast-moving Atlantic storm had residents preparing for another tropical blow and emergency officials worried about responding to a Hurricane in the midst of a pandemic.

Hurricane Isaias was rumbling toward the East Coast when Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency and local officials advised residents to find sheltering arrangements that would not risk exposure to large groups of people.

Pitt County Emergency Management Director Randy Gentry said officials have spent the last several days meeting to go over plans for the storm and watching the forecast. As the storm moved closer, they put resources in place in the event shelters need to open.

“That shelter would be the last resort simply because of COVID-19,” Gentry said. “The less congregating of people that we have to have I think the better off we will be. But should we need to open up a shelter, we have properly prepared with PPE and supplies in which to make that a safe environment as possible.”

In the past, shelters have been set up at Ayden Middle School, Wellcome Middle School, E.B. Aycock Middle School, Farmville Middle School and Hope Middle School. Shelters are opened depending on the size of the storm and needed response, he said. In previous years, shelter capacity was based on 40-square-feet per person. American Red Cross guidelines now require 110 square feet per person.

Gentry said everyone is being asked to find family or a friend in the area they can stay with if they feel they live in a structure or area that they would not be safe to stay in during the storm. If someone does not have family or friends they can stay with locally, they are asked to consider staying with a friend or family member outside the area. If someone has the financial means to shelter in a hotel, they are asked to do so.

Those who have homes suitable for sheltering are encouraged to invite close friends and family members who may need to evacuate to stay with them.

Before every approaching storm, residents are encouraged to review their emergency plan, ensure they have emergency supplies and contact family to let them know where they will be staying during the storm, Gentry said.

Red Cross Regional Communications Officer Cally Edwards said the Red Cross and community partners will open shelters for those who need it.

Anyone who comes into the shelter must be temperature screened before they can enter the shelter, she said. Meals will may individually packed and capacity will be closely monitored.

“So there’s a possibility we would have more shelters than a normal year, but there would be less people per shelter. We would also, in the shelter, have isolation areas, masks would be worn, sanitation stations would be set up,” Edwards said.

Local officials already started taking precautionary steps. The Pitt County Health Department halted free COVID-19 testing operations that have drawn people to sites across the county. Testing will resume as soon as possible.

Hyde County authorities ordered the evacuation of Ocracoke Island for residents and nonresident property owners starting at 6 a.m. Saturday. Ocracoke Island is accessible only by ferry.

Coastal residents being asked to evacuate should first try to locate family or friends to stay with inland, Cooper said, or stay at a hotel if they can afford one. If they can do neither, they’ll be directed to shelter reception centers, where they’ll undergo health screenings.

Those with COVID-19 symptoms will be isolated or receive medical treatment, officials said. Others will go to shelters that are smaller and can hold fewer clients to comply with social distancing, Division of Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry said.

“Sheltering is going to be different this year,” Sprayberry said. Cooper said recruiting shelter volunteers is more challenging because older adults at higher risk for virus complications are less likely to work.

Swift water rescue teams, if needed for the storm, will have personal protective gear to quell the spread of the virus, Sprayberry said. Some coastal COVID-19 testing sites may need to be rescheduled or canceled due to the storm.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Elizabeth Johnson at ejohnson@reflector.com and 252-329-9572.