Alachua County is prepared for a busy hurricane season, which began June 1.
The onset of more severe summer and fall storms has local meteorologists keen on tracking each tropical development.
“Several reputable forecast agencies including NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], are forecasting an above-normal season in terms of tropical cyclones in the Atlantic basin,” said Jeff Huffman, chief meteorologist for the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network.
Weather predictions aren’t an exact science, according to Huffman, but there are ways forecasters can see indications there might be an active season.
“With more activity overall in the Atlantic basin, the chances of Florida or North Florida being affected go up as well,” he said.
With the season starting Tuesday, the Emergency Operations Center for the county has been preparing in advance by walking through shelters and protocols with the Emergency Operations Center.
“The moment one hurricane season ends, we jump right in preparing for the next one,” Jen Grice, Alachua County Emergency director, said.
When the Emergency Operations Center is activated, people from law enforcement, fire rescue, IT and GIS specialists gather to make sure the county makes decisions based on the right information with the right tools to perform effectively, Grice said.
The county has 20 emergency shelters available for those who need to use these facilities. This is an increase from the 13 shelters that were previously provided during Irma. Grice said shelter plans are prepared with Alachua County Community Support Services and school board staff.
“This has really been especially crucial for us since we have made adjustments due to COVID, “Grice said. “We have increased our squared footage per person to allow for better social distancing.”
Before the pandemic, the planning standard was 20 square feet per person. Now, shelter seekers will each have 60 square feet of space, which will not hold as many people as before.
In addition, people will go through pre-screening questions for Covid based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before they enter the shelter, Grice said.
“We are not in the business of telling anyone they can’t shelter because of vaccination,” Grice said.
Those who don’t pass the pre-screening questions will be performed a rapid test. If the test comes out positive, they will be placed in isolation zones determined for positive cases.
For Gainesville resident Sean Williams, the shelters provide security during disasters. Especially for those like him, who don’t have a home.
“I expect for these shelters to keep everybody safe,” Williams said. “Especially the elderly or people that are less fortunate.”
After moving from New Jersey, Williams hasn’t been able to find a home and finds the means to look after himself by asking for donations in the intersection between Southwest 16th Avenue and 13th Street.
The county will “strongly encourage” all guests to wear a mask while in the shelter, Grice said. However, although more than 108,000 residents in Alachua County are vaccinated, admission into shelters will not take this under consideration.
The last time Alachua County took a direct hit from a hurricane in 2004 when Frances and Jeanne both caused extensive damage to the area.
NOAA predicted between six and 10 hurricanes for the Atlantic during the 2021 season Although the typical timeframe for notice of a hurricane potentially approaching is 5 to 7 days, “sometimes it can spring up between 2 to 3 days or even less notice,” Huffman said.
Both Huffman and Grice encourage people to begin preparing.
From May 28 to June 6, Florida has a disaster preparedness sales tax holiday, so residents can stock up on supplies.
“Every storm is unique and requires individual attention,” Huffman said. “We all can do what we can now to prepare for this season ahead.”
The county’s website provides steps to follow to prepare. One main point is to first determine if you live in a flood zone, then check your insurance for coverage.
There are other resources like Florida Division of Emergency Management’s website. Anyone can type in their information, and it will generate a personalized plan based off on anyone’s individual situation.
“We want to remind everyone to prepare the same every year because the number of storms does not correlate to how bad it could be in any one location,” Huffman said.
To sign up for Alachua County’s alert system, you can visit AlertAlachua.com.