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As System Develops off African Coast, Agencies Drill on How to Handle the Real Thing

A volunteer, seated right, role plays an evacuee registering at the D.C. Canegata Recreation Center shelter during an evacuation shelter drill. (Photo by Eric Adams/FEMA)

While the U.S. Gulf Coast braced for Hurricane Ida and meteorologists turned their attention to a developing tropical wave off the coast of Africa, here in the U.S. Virgin Islands emergency responders were practicing how to open and run a shelter during a pandemic, in case the real thing happens here.

The test was conducted by the Department of Human Services and the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency through the support of FEMA, according to a news release issued Monday by the federal agency.

In the scenario of the test, wind and rain swirled as a Category 2 hurricane approached St. Croix – a make-believe storm belied by the day’s bright sun in the blue sky. “Evacuees” climbed out of the Virgin Islands Transit bus and approached the D.C. Canegata Recreation Center to seek shelter from the storm. Many of the evacuees were exhausted, with loved ones left behind.

About 10 evacuees approached the entrance to the recreation center and urged the Virgin Islands National Guard soldiers to let them into the shelter as the storm approached. One woman expressed worry about her husband’s whereabouts, another woman raised concerns about being in a shelter with COVID-19 cases surging on the island, and a man asked for food and water.

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The Guard’s soldiers, a Virgin Islands Police Department officer, representatives from the Virgin Islands Department of Human Services and American Red Cross reassured the evacuees. The men and women were pre-screened, given COVID-19 tests, had their temperatures checked, and were processed into the shelter.

A volunteer acting as evacuee checks in with the Virgin Islands National Guard during an evacuation shelter drill at D.C. Canegata Recreation Center on St. Croix. (Photo by Eric Adams/FEMA)

Inside, shelter workers announced protocols and said lights would go out at 10 p.m. If it had been a real emergency, all would have been well.

The evacuees were volunteers from the Virgin Islands Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster and the storm, as noted, wasn’t real. But the results of the drill could be of real consequence if a disaster does approach, officials said.

Human Services Commissioner Kimberley Causey-Gomez said she appreciated the many participants who supported the shelter exercise. Mass Care operations take a whole community effort, she said.

“Our way of life has completely changed since the pandemic, and this includes our disaster preparedness and planning efforts for our Virgin Islands community. Our public message since the 2020 season has been to shelter-in-place with the support from your friends, family, neighbors, and faith-based organizations,” Causey-Gomez said in the FEMA news release. “It is equally important for DHS to be prepared through our Mass Care requirements to have a safe evacuation shelter to be used, hopefully as a last resort to our residents. We understand not everyone is able to shelter in place, and this training and exercise helped us to continually work together as a team to provide safety and security to you when you need it the most.”

The afternoon field drill was preceded in the morning by discussions on operating congregate shelters in disaster conditions, while in a COVID-19 pandemic environment.

Among the issues discussed during the drill were:

– What to do if evacuees refuse screening for COVID-19,

– COVID-19 protocols for territorial agencies and volunteers who would support shelter operations,

– Availability of nurses and resources to support COVID-19 testing and evacuees who were diagnosed positive or showing coronavirus symptoms,

– The frequency of testing for evacuees, adequate staffing and availability of communications resources such as Spanish and Haitian-Creole translators and American Sign Language interpreters.

Early Tuesday morning satellite photo shows, to the far right, a tropical wave moving off the African coast. (NOAA satellite photo)

National Hurricane Center Watching System Develop
A tropical wave and its associated area of low pressure have pushed off the west African coast and are entering an environment that is favorable for development. According to the National Hurricane Center, at 2 a.m. AST, the system was about 200 miles southwest of the coast of Guinea. Forecasters expect the disturbance will become our next tropical storm and perhaps even a hurricane late this week and into the weekend.

As of early Tuesday, the system was producing disorganized showers and thunderstorms, mostly on its south side, but over the next several days it is likely to track on a general west-northwest course. By the time it reaches 40 to 50 degrees West longitude this weekend, it may encounter a weakness in the high-pressure ridge caused by a frontal boundary that is moving east from Atlantic Canada.

Weather services will be watching how much the disturbance develops and strengthens in the coming days. The stronger it becomes in the next five to seven days, the more likely it will be pulled northward and into the open Atlantic. On the other hand, if the disturbance takes its time to develop, it becomes more likely that it will miss the weakness in the high-pressure ridge and track westward instead.

The NHC gave the system a 90 percent chance of further tropical development both in the next 48 hours and the next five days. This tropical wave looks quite large in overall size and larger disturbances sometimes take a lot longer to organize and develop than smaller ones do. It is very possible that the forecast models are developing this disturbance too quickly, and in the end, we may see much slower development, which could steer the system further west when compared to the model’s suggested track.

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