Hurricane Isaias ripped shingles off roofs and blew over trees as it carved its way through the Bahamas early on Saturday and headed toward the Florida coast, where officials in Miami said they were closing beaches, marinas and parks.
Miami’s mayor, Carlos Giménez, said on Friday that 20 evacuation centers were on standby that could be set up with Covid-19 safety measures.
“We still don’t think there is a need to open shelters for this storm, but they are ready,” he said.
The mayor said that social-distancing measures prompted by Covid-19 meant each person in shelters needed to have 40 sq ft (3.7 sq meters) and no more cafeteria-style dining would be allowed. People who are infected with the new coronavirus and need to evacuate will be isolated in classrooms separate from the general population, Giménez said.
Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, said on Saturday that 12 counties had adopted states of emergency, although no immediate evacuation orders had been given. He also said that hospitals were not being evacuated of coronavirus or other patients.
The Republican told a morning news conference that the state was prepared with stockpiles of personal protective equipment, generators, bottled water and meals ready to be distributed. He urged people to have seven days of food, water and medication on hand and said state-run coronavirus testing sites in the areas where the storm could hit would be closed.
The pandemic forced officials to wrestle with social-distancing rules at the same time as disaster response.
For example, in Marion county, Florida, officials said people would be provided facial coverings if they had to go to shelters. The facilities would have sanitizers and personal protective equipment if needed, although officials would prefer people bring their own PPE.
Kevin Shelton, the owner of Causeway Mowers in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida, said his store had been packed since Friday. People streamed in to buy generators, chainsaws and other provisions. On Saturday morning, Shelton and his wife served at least 25 customers an hour, which is double the business they would normally do on a weekend.
“They’re not saying much about Covid, they’re just making sure they have the proper supplies,” he said. “We’ve been in the area almost 50 years. We keep an eye on every storm. Every time we have a storm we take it seriously. It could shift in this direction at any moment.”
Authorities in North Carolina ordered the evacuation of Ocracoke Island, which was slammed by last year’s Hurricane Dorian, starting Saturday evening. Meanwhile, officials in the Bahamas evacuated people on Abaco island, who have been living in temporary structures since Dorian. People living in the eastern end of Grand Bahama were also being moved.
Isaias had maximum sustained winds of 85mph (135kph) on Saturday morning and some strengthening was possible later Saturday, the US National Hurricane Center in Miami said. The storm was centered about 80 miles (125km) south-south-east of Nassau in the Bahamas and was moving north-west at 12mph (19kph). Forecasters said some decrease in its forward motion was expected.
Paula Miller, Mercy Corps director for the Bahamas, told the Associated Press that while the islands can normally withstand strong hurricanes, some have been destabilized by the coronavirus pandemic and the damage caused by Dorian.
“With everything not quite shored up, property not secured, home not prepared, even a category 1 will be enough to set them back,” she said.
A hurricane warning was in effect for north-west and central Bahamas.
“Continue to hunker down,” said Trevor Basden, director of the Bahamas meteorology department.
Two of those islands, Abaco and Grand Bahama, were battered by Dorian, a category 5 storm that hovered over the area for two days and killed at least 70 people, with more than 280 reported missing. People are still living in tents on both islands, and officials said crews tried to remove leftover debris ahead of Isaias.
Prime Minister Hubert Minnis relaxed a coronavirus lockdown as a result of the storm, but imposed a 10pm to 5am curfew. He said supermarkets, pharmacies, gas stations and hardware stores would be open as long as weather permitted.
The Bahamas has reported more than 570 confirmed Covid-19 cases and at least 14 deaths. It recently barred travelers from the US following a surge in cases after it reopened to international tourism.