AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Tropical Depression Cristobal approaches East Texas over the weekend, Gov. Greg Abbott and emergency management leaders cautioned that people will need to be more prepared than ever to evacuate if needed — because of the coronavirus.
“As local officials go about their task of responding to this tropical storm challenge, they need to be cognizant constantly about the possibility this could stoke people coming together in ways that transmit COVID-19,” Abbott said from the Alternate State Operations Center in Austin.
Tropical Depression Cristobal at this point is forecast to become a tropical storm and make a second landfall, this time in Louisiana, on Sunday. Abbott said in the latest forecasts, the storm’s most likely path will still mean heavy rain, wind and potential flooding in East Texas which could reach as far west as Dallas. There is a small possibility it could become a hurricane.
He encouraged those living in East Texas to prepare for a quick evacuation now.
“We’ve dealt with countless tropical storms probably every year, and hurricanes frequently,” Abbott said. This situation is different from other types of storms we’ve dealt with in the past because this is the first one I’m aware of where we had to deal with a storm while at the same time deal with a pandemic.”
What evacuation plans could look like with COVID-19
Local officials must plan for different storm response strategies, including preparing more vehicles and more spacious vehicles to help people evacuate so they can maintain social distancing, Abbott said.
“How we used to be able to put 50 people on a bus — that may be 15 now,” said Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd.
That also means evacuations could take longer and people should be prepared to evacuate earlier.
“Frankly, it might mean evacuations for storms we might not have evacuated in the past for,” Kidd said. “Our communication is going to be critical because of COVID-19.”
Abbott said local leaders should consider using different kinds of evacuation sites than they typically would. Fewer people will be allowed in convention centers and large spaces that are usually used — a shelter that held 150 would only hold 50, Kidd said as an example, under new guidelines that changed the needed space per person in a shelter from 60 square feet to 110 square feet. Kidd said local partners are helping identify shelter spaces while federal partners are helping find hotels and motels where family units can stay together but be socially distant from others.
They’re also working to make sure cleaning materials are available at shelters, as well as medical staff and COVID-19 testing.
If needed, evacuees who are able to drive themselves would go to a drive-through hub to get directions to where they could shelter, Kidd said.
People will also need to be aware of social distancing if they do need to evacuate, and should plan to pack masks and hand sanitizer.
Protecting the vulnerable
Numerous state groups are prepared to respond to the storm and its aftermath through rescue and cleanup efforts, including the Texas National Guard, Department of Public Safety, Texas Task Force One and Two, Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Forest Service, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
The Health and Human Services Commission, which has been helping with the state’s coronavirus response, is also assisting in preparing nursing homes and assisted living facilities for safe evacuation. Many of those facilities have been hotspots for coronavirus cases, and KXAN investigations reveal thousands testing positive and hundreds who have died.
In addition to typical storm preparations, they are prepared to take precautions to protect residents from coronavirus and maintain the health and safety of those who have it, Abbott said.