With the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicting an “extremely active” hurricane season, PERF spoke with public safety leaders about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their storm preparations, and their response to Hurricane Isaias in early August. Their insights can be helpful to public safety officials confronting all types of natural disasters or other major events during the pandemic.


Hampton, VA Police Chief Terry Sult:

Contact Tracing Protocols Help Us Avoid Unnecessary Quarantining of Officers

COVID has taught us a lot about how we can do things, as opposed to how we’ve been doing things. We’ve all learned to live more in the virtual world, with teleconferencing and other online systems.

In our emergency preparedness for this storm, we did a combination of an active Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and a virtual operations center. Leading up to the storm, we brought in the key individuals, including the emergency manager, city manager, police, and fire, and put them in the EOC with minimal staffing, so we could keep six feet of distance in the room. The others would dial in virtually. As the storm came through and we went into recovery, the focus shifted to public works, and the EOC evolved as we went forward.

Isaias was a Category 1 hurricane on the 5-point scale. In our jurisdiction, if we have a direct hit from a more serious Category 3 hurricane, we’re going to be 80% under water, so we have to plan for evacuations.  

COVID contact tracing:  We have developed our own contact tracing program during COVID. Our contact tracers are made up of both police and fire, and we cover contact tracing for on-duty exposures or potential exposures for all city employees. We require that all our contact tracers go through Johns Hopkins University’s online training, which we’ve found very helpful. We have established protocols and checklists associated with that.

We’ve found this to be very helpful during storm preparations, because we can do rapid risk assessments and don’t need to send people off to quarantine if they don’t actually need to quarantine. 


Wilmington, NC Police Captain Rodney Dawson:

COVID Limits Our Ability to House Officers at Police HQ During a Hurricane

This is our third storm in three years. In 2018 we had the Category 4 Hurricane Florence, which taught us a lot. Florence was the first of its kind in the past decade and changed the face of how we respond. Then we had Category 5 Hurricane Dorian in 2019.

Our lessons were mainly learned from Florence, but we did have some changes this year due to COVID.

We don’t handle any of the shelters or the COVID-19 testing sites; our county government handles those. But we do house our officers at headquarters during a major storm. During Florence, for example, we housed over 300 of our personnel, including some of their family members and pets, here at the station. But this year with Isaias, we were concerned with maintaining social distancing, so our contingency plan did not include family members, to give us more room. We’ve also explored the possibility of using nearby hotels for that purpose.

We took a somewhat direct hit from this latest storm, but thankfully it came in and went very quickly. The damage was minor compared to previous storms. 


Charleston, SC Police Chief Luther Reynolds:

Because of COVID, Our Operations Center No Longer Meets in One Place

There was a lot of advance prep. We have a task force that has been working on this for months, along with our emergency management, fire, police, and all the normal partners.

One of the key things is sticking to protocol and avoiding in-person meetings as much as possible. If we must meet in person, we make sure we follow all the protocols, including masks and distancing.

We have a local Public Safety Operations Center (PSOC). Instead of one big center, it’s somewhat segmented. We have a part of it in the Police Department. So rather than getting everyone together in one place, we have smaller numbers of people in different places. Most of our operations center now operates on Zoom, which we haven’t done before.

If a storm eliminated our ability to have Zoom meetings, we’d probably have to meet in person. We did prepare our PSOC in the police department in case that happened. We have a generator and all the technology that would normally be available. We could also go to our normal operations center. We had those contingencies in place and were monitoring to see how hard the storm would hit us and whether that would be necessary.

If we did that, some of the people who would normally be in the room would be put in separate rooms. There would be more space, and everyone would be wearing masks.

Deploying before the flooding begins:  Housing our troops during a hurricane was a big consideration. Most of our city would be under water, so there are key areas where our troops have to pre-deploy before the flooding comes. We have a local college arena and some other large spaces predesignated with cots and plans for who would go to certain areas. We did have access to hotels. Hotels are usually low-occupancy during storms, so there are rooms available for us.

We’re really focusing on communications. Our communications are frequent and detailed, and we make sure that we’re constantly providing updates. A general complaint within our department is that we tend to pull the trigger too early on changing to 12-hour shifts and repositioning assets. With Hurricane Isaias, we didn’t do that, and I think remote communication helped us provide constant updates. We avoided repositioning assets unnecessarily.

Shelters are at lower capacity:  Our shelters have lower capacity than normal because of distancing requirements and other protocols. That’s a limitation, and I’m not sure how we can overcome it. We’re planning for it, but if we had a really big storm, we would simply have less capacity than we normally have.

Also, a hurricane can shut down COVID testing sites, because they’re mostly outside, and a lot of them are mobile.

I think the key to our success is taking care of our troops. Hurricanes add one more thing on top of everything else that our people are going through. So it’s important for us to communicate with them and let them know what the plan is and what their role is.


Charleston, SC Police Captain Tony Cretella:

Our Virtual Operations Center Seemed More Efficient than In-Person

The biggest benefit to us was the virtual meeting. I feel like we were more prepared this time for the storm with the virtual emergency operations center than when we’re actually physically going there. It freed up time to be multitasking and taking care of logistics.

We discussed the point at which we’d have to go in and physically be there. But we still have to figure that out, because we were successful with Isaias without reaching that point.


Galveston, TX Police Chief Vernon Hale:

Defining Essential Employees When You Have COVID and a Hurricane

Our biggest challenge is that our hurricane plans designate essential versus non-essential employees. Of course, cops will always be essential, but so are some support staff. When the pandemic hit and we activated those essential employees, the people who were needed during a pandemic were not necessarily the same people who were needed during a hurricane. So we had to change some policies and protocols around who is essential and who is not.

We had to look at the resources and contingency plans we had, so officers could continue to do their work. Galveston is essentially a mandatory evacuation island if it comes to that point, so we don’t have shelters on the island. But we do have contracts with local hotels where officers can go until the storm is over and it’s safe. Then we use heavy equipment, high-water vehicles from our marine teams, and fire trucks to answer 9-1-1 calls if we do have to go out into the water.

If we do a mandatory evacuation and folks choose not to leave and later they call for a rescue, they have to wait until it’s safe for these cops to get back out. 


Galveston, TX Chief of Emergency Management Mark Morgan:

Evacuations Will Take Longer Because of COVID

When we were trying to develop our plan during the COVID pandemic, lack of guidance was a problem. We went through all the after-action reports that we could find, all the table-top exercises and drills, but they are about vaccines and inoculation. None were on protective measures. So we’ve had to base our response on plans we had in place for other diseases.

To allow for social distancing, we doubled the number of buses we’ll make available for mandatory evacuation. We also increased the evacuation time by 12 hours to make sure there is time to check everyone in, take temperatures, and issue PPE. We will also issue PPE to everyone assisting with the evacuation of people without rides or with other needs.

Over the last few years, we’ve learned to deal with the rapid intensification of storms. To deal with that, we always plan for one size bigger. If we have predictions of a tropical storm, we plan for a Category 1. And if we have a Category 1 developing, we plan for a Category 2. My concern is that a tropical storm could rapidly intensify and we wouldn’t be prepared for an evacuation. So we may have to pull the trigger on mandatory evacuations at a lower level than we have in the past, to ensure we have enough time to evacuate.

Before the pandemic, we ordered 25 laptops so that we could make the Emergency Operations Center portable. We’ve tried to make the Emergency Operations Center less “permanent.” We have two or three different Category 5 buildings we can go to and set up.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.