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Mississippi Emergency Management Agency head Greg Michel answers reporters' questions during a governor's news conference outside the Governor's Mansion, regarding the current situation of COVID-19 and coronavirus in the state and discussing Mississippi's ongoing response to slow the spread, Tuesday, March 24, 2020 in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mississippi emergency leaders: Add masks to hurricane prep

Emergency management officials in Mississippi say that as coastal states face a double threat from hurricane season and the new coronavirus, people need to add masks and other personal protective gear to their severe weather preparation kits.

Shelters will be open, with new guidance to allow more space per person.

Mississippi has already dealt with helping displaced people during the coronavirus pandemic because of powerful tornadoes on Easter. Mississippi Emergency Management Agency director Greg Michel said people with damaged homes were sent to hotels rather than community shelters. He said that might be an option during hurricane season, too, depending on the demand.

“Life safety is the most important. We ask people not to put their lives and the lives of first responders at risk by ‘riding out’ a hurricane,” Michel said. “We encourage counties up north to open their shelters for residents that have to evacuate, and those shelters will be equipped with PPE but we still encourage folks to bring their own washable masks if they have them.”

Mississippi Department of Human Services spokesman Danny Blanton said current social distancing guidance for evacuation shelters without cots requires 60 square feet (5.6 square meters) per person, up from the usual 20 square feet (1.9 square meters). For short-term shelters after a hurricane makes landfall, which would have cots, space would be increased to 110 square feet (10.2 square meters) per person as opposed to 40 to 60 square feet (3.7 to 5.6 square meters) per person. Blanton said people are asked to wear masks when going to evacuation shelters, following guidance from the CDC and Mississippi State Department of Health.

Rupert Lacy is emergency management director for Harrison County, the center of Mississippi’s three coastal counties and the one with the largest population. He said during this hurricane season — as during any other — officials in his county encourage people to “run from the water” and protect themselves from the wind. He said people should try to stay with loved ones who live inland, if possible, or to go to hotels.

He said people going to shelters during hurricanes will need to bring including masks, snacks, food ready that’s to eat and bed rolls.

“A shelter is refuge, not comfort,” Lacy said.

The westernmost of the three coastal counties, Hancock, had some of the hardest-hit areas during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The county’s emergency management director, Brian Adam, said officials always strongly encourage people “to have a plan to seek shelter out of harm’s way.” He said people living in areas prone to storm surge or those in mobile homes, modular homes or unfinished homes can be particularly vulnerable.

Donald Langham is emergency management coordinator for the Office of Emergency Services in Jackson County — the easternmost Mississippi coastal county, bordering Alabama.

“I feel that at this point we are prepared as possible,” Langham said. “But, with that being said — things are changing every day and as things change, plans may change.”

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