Hurricane season starts June 1 and runs through Nov. 30. We asked Curtis Brown, state coordinator of emergency management at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM), about how the commonwealth is readying for the season.
What sort of hurricane season are officials anticipating, and how is Virginia preparing?
The federal government predicts an above-average 2021 hurricane season for the Atlantic Basin, with a 70% likelihood of 13 to 20 named storms, of which six to 10 could become hurricanes, including three to five major hurricanes. This is very similar to the prediction made for this past year’s historic season.
Despite the COVID-19 response efforts, we have continued to plan for other disasters, including weather events. VDEM — along with continued partnerships with our local, state, tribal, private, nonprofit and federal counterparts — is continuing our work to identify and plan for any resource needs or potential shortages so that we can ensure preparedness, and we will continue analyzing the current disaster environment to project our resource demands and impacts given a number of possible scenarios.
What specifically does your department do regarding hurricane preparation and threats?
We prepare for all hazards and disasters, 365 days a year. There always are unknowns, and that will happen even with the most comprehensive plans in place. Each year we assess our readiness for the upcoming season and identify any resource gaps or needs.
We also work to get the entire Virginia Emergency Support Team (VEST) trained, briefed and ready to respond when needed. The VEST is composed of subject-matter expert agency representatives who work together to support our 133 local governments. When the time comes to activate the VEST for a potential storm, we coordinate the overall response with the governor’s office, state agency partners and localities. We coordinate everything from logistics, to finance, to public information and resource requests from affected jurisdictions. Should a storm impact the commonwealth, we also coordinate recovery activities .
How do you work with localities, public safety agencies and other related offices across the state and nation?
VDEM has seven regional offices that work directly with our localities on a regular basis. They plan, train and exercise with their local emergency managers and public safety partners to ensure readiness for all hazards.
Our regional staff have extensive knowledge of their jurisdictions and what the needs will be before, during and after a major event. Prior to the start of any hurricane season, we host a series of webinars for our localities, elected officials, state leadership and federal government partners to share our current plans, brief out on any updates and allow for the sharing of information.
Emergency management is all about relationship-building before an incident, and we can honestly say that it is these partnerships and relationships that allow us to streamline our response, lean forward and get things done in a timely manner.
Though many Virginians are vaccinated against COVID-19, what unique challenges does the pandemic present during a hurricane? For instance, what sort of policies would there be regarding shelters?
While many Virginians have been vaccinated, we still have a portion of our population that cannot receive a vaccine — such as young children — or choose not to be vaccinated. If a major hurricane is coming and you are in danger, know your zone, evacuate and/or seek shelter.
Those guidelines have not changed. What has changed is for people to include in their hurricane plan the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for protecting yourself and family from COVID-19.
This includes adding two cloth face coverings per family member and cleaning items, like soap, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes or general household cleaning supplies to your preparedness toolkit.
Currently, plans are being revised to include considerations for updated pandemic guidance. If possible, you always should try to maintain a safe physical distance between you and people who aren’t members of your household if you are indoors.
What should Virginians — both individuals and businesses — do to prepare for hurricane season?
The first is knowing your zone. If you live in or plan to visit a coastal area, go to knowyourzoneva.org to see what zone you are in. Evacuation decisions might become necessary depending on the track and severity of the storm, and it is important to know your zone so that you can leave and seek shelter if necessary.
We also encourage everyone to have an emergency kit and a family communication plan in place. Plan how you will assemble and communicate with your family and loved ones. Identify meeting locations and anticipate where you will go.
We cannot stress how important it is to make sure you have adequate insurance coverage. It is important to recognize that not all hurricane-related losses, such as flooding, are covered under traditional policies.
Now is the time to review your coverage and contact your agent for any changes as there is usually a waiting period of 30 days before it is active. If you’re not insured against flooding, talk to your agent or visit www.floodsmart.gov. If you are a renter, now is the time to ensure you also have adequate coverage to protect your belongings.
Lastly, stay informed. Identify where to go for trusted sources of information during emergencies. Check with your local emergency management office to sign up for alerts that go directly to your phone or email. Be sure to monitor local news for watches and warnings in your area and follow directions of local officials.
What is Virginia doing to ensure evacuation routes operate as smoothly as possible, and avoid clogged roadways, interstates and bridges when an evacuation order is issued?
VEST agencies plan for, train on and exercise the state’s evacuation plan on a regular basis. The biggest key to evacuation is for residents and visitors to know their zone and know when/if they should evacuate and where they will go. For more information on evacuation and for a copy of the Virginia Hurricane Evacuation Plan, please visit: knowyourzoneva.org