emergency shelter

Yolanda Cooper, of Elizabeth City, prepares her sleeping area at the Red Cross’ emergency shelter at the K.E. White Center in Elizabeth City in October 2018.

With a potential hurricane brewing in the central Atlantic Ocean, local emergency officials are warning residents who might be forced to evacuate not to plan on seeking refuge at a local shelter.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, residents will need to first seek shelter with family or friends or at a hotel away from hurricane-affected areas, Pasquotank-Camden Emergency Management Director Christy Saunders said.

“The big information we are putting out this year to the public is you need to have a plan for your evacuation,” Saunders said. “The plan should be for where you will go.”

And going to a shelter should be the last option, she said.

“If possible, don’t plan to go to a shelter because of the social distancing,” Saunders said. “That’s a big push this year. It’s not that we are not going to open a shelter, but we are highly recommending that the public has their own plan because of COVID. The most ideal plan is not going to a shelter.’’

With its capacity of around 300, Pasquotank and Camden counties have used the K.E. White Graduate Center at Elizabeth City State University as a shelter in the past. But the center wouldn’t be able to safely handle that number of evacuees now because of coronavirus guidelines.

“We would probably open it but we are highly recommending that for each individual’s safety that they go someplace that will provide the social distancing that is needed,” Saunders said. “We will do the best we can, but we are limited in what we can do.”

That advice might come in handy sooner than one expects.

National Hurricane Center officials say a weather system now called Potential Tropical Cyclone Number Nine has an 80-percent chance to spin up and become Tropical Storm Isaias by Thursday. The system is expected to be upgraded to a hurricane later in the week.

An NHC advisory Tuesday morning had the storm 585 miles east-southeast of the Leeward Islands moving west at 23 mph. Its current track has the storm possibly hitting the Florida coast Sunday. But the NHC cautioned that the storm’s “long-term track is uncertain” and that any change in course could affect the Carolinas.

That is why Saunders said people in the region should begin their storm preparations now.

In Currituck, county officials don’t open pre-storm shelters. Because the county’s low elevation spurs flooding concerns, residents and visitors are instead directed to seek shelter in nearby counties.

Steven Pyle, Currituck deputy emergency services coordinator, said a post-storm shelter could be opened for residents whose property was damaged or flooded in a hurricane.

“In that situation, the shelter would follow state health guidelines for social distancing, face masks, hand washing and sanitation, food delivery,” Pyle said.

State emergency officials have encouraged local officials to look at using hotels to shelter evacuees but Saunders said that would be difficult to achieve.

“We are limited with the number of hotels we have here,” Saunders said. “Historically, we have found that hotels are not usually not an option for our shelter population.”

Saunders and Pyle are also encouraging residents to find their hurricane evacuation zone at https://www.ncdps.gov/learn-your-zone.

Back in June, North Carolina instituted a Know Your Zone initiative for 20 coastal counties in the state. The program has predetermined evacuation zones to help coastal residents stay safe from the impacts of hurricanes and tropical storms while also allowing for simple and more orderly evacuations.

Pasquotank-Camden and Currituck County have three zones each of A through C, with Zone A being the first to be evacuated if needed.

Pyle said Currituck has always conducted evacuations by geographical area of the county and Know Your Zone will help add “some clarity” for residents and visitors when an evacuation is ordered.

“Evacuations in Currituck County have always been done in phases,” Pyle said. “Many factors play into the decision to evacuate, such as the storm track, intensity, and coordination with Dare County. Currituck traditionally has evacuated the county’s four-wheel drive area first because of the potential for localized flooding creating impassable beach roads, and then followed by Corolla. If necessary, the mainland and Knotts Island would then also be evacuated.”

Pasquotank-Camden were two of three counties that took part in a pilot program for Know Your Zone in 2019. Saunders said being part of the pilot program was beneficial when Hurricane Dorian hit the region last September.

“We actually had two zones (A and B) at the time and we now have three zones,” Saunders said. “We were very fortunate to be a part of the pilot program and it helped us give us insight to add a third zone.”