Published on September 1, 2020.

Space Crunch

How COVID-19 is causing shelter space to disappear


TO STEM THE SPREAD OF THE CORONAVIRUS, the Red Cross has issued a recommendation that congregate shelters provide a minimum of 60 square feet of space per evacuee, three times the pre-COVID guidance of 20 square feet. Following that recommendation, however, means that available shelter capacity in most communities would be cut by more than 60 percent, dramatically impacting areas like the Southeastern US and parts of Texas, where shelter space is already inadequate, according to published reports.

Even in places like Florida, which has invested in recent years to boost shelter capacity, adhering to the new space recommendations would be problematic. In Alachua County, in the northern part of the state, total shelter capacity would drop from about 14,200 spots to just 4,500 spots if the new guidance is followed, according to numbers provided by the Florida Division of Emergency Management. That reduction takes the county from a shelter surplus to nearly 8,000 spots short of its estimated need if a major hurricane were to hit.

“[The Red Cross guidance] sounds great, and sometimes plans sound great, but when you need to test them with reality, it's an impossibility,” said Hal Grieb, the director of emergency management for Alachua County. The fact is, in Florida and elsewhere, if a major incident happens, congregate shelters—where evacuees are housed together, typically in big open spaces— will likely be much more crowded than epidemiologists would like. That is, unless emergency officials are prepared to turn away desperate people, which is unlikely.

"A hurricane is a very imminent threat to life and safety," Zach Hood, emergency management director for Baldwin County, Alabama, told NPR in August. "We have to mitigate against the immediate loss of life, even if it puts everyone in a compromised position to deal with and contain coronavirus."

If more crowded congregate shelters are needed, emergency officials are banking that new procedures such as medical screening at the door, frequent cleaning, social distancing and other measures will be enough to keep shelters free of the COVID-19 virus.

“What we don’t want to be miscommunicated: if you are in need, there is a place to shelter,” Grieb said. “All 67 counties in the state of Florida are working diligently to provide a safe as feasible place for those who need to evacuate.” 

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor of NFPA Journal. Top photograph: AMERICAN RED CROSS