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Alachua County Braces For Eventful Hurricane Season Amid Pandemic

As the country grapples with the pandemic and now-widespread protests calling for racial justice, Floridians are gearing up for an added layer of stress: hurricane season.

Last weekend, North Central Florida was largely unscathed by Tropical Storm Cristobal. Still, the next few months are predicted to mark an eventful hurricane season. If a serious hurricane should develop, shelters might look a little different this year due to the coronavirus.

“Traditionally, in a risk shelter, it’s approximately 20 feet per person,” Alachua County Emergency Management Director Hal Grieb said. “We’re looking at how can we get approximately 60 square feet per person.”

That means every shelter will triple the spacing between each family. But more required spacing also means less people accommodated.

“We have to look at maybe opening more shelters than we normally would want to open and how do we cascade those openings effectively and rapidly,” Grieb said.

The city of Gainesville has multiple shelters throughout its entire area. It likely wouldn’t have a huge issue with opening a few more. But what about a smaller city, like Newberry?

The town has one official shelter, the Easton Newberry Sports Complex, to serve its entire population.

Mayor Jordan Marlowe said in 2018, when Hurricane Michael hit, the city council opened Newberry Elementary School as a second shelter and both were packed nearly to capacity.

When it was brought up that the county was looking to triple the amount of spacing between each person, Marlowe indicated that his city might have trouble doing so.

“That’s going to be difficult for us to adhere to. We certainly could open up our schools as other emergency shelters if we really needed to, but it also becomes a manning issue,” he said. “Do we have enough volunteers, do we have enough people to man that many sites?”

If faced with the choice to either turn people away from shelters or go against county guidelines, Marlowe was candid with his approach.

“We are not going to turn anyone away from a shelter if we have a hurricane bearing down on us,” he said.” That will be our stance here in Newberry.”

Grieb stressed that if you need a shelter in Alachua County, there will be one available. The county just isn’t sure yet how it’s going to look. But, Grieb said you should use the shelter only as a last resort.

“We always say an emergency shelter is the lifeboat not The Love Boat," he said.

Chris O’Brien is a reporter at WUFT. Follow him on Twitter @THEChrisOB or contact him at Christophercobrien29@gmail.com.