COVID-19 is changing emergency evacuation operations amid the wildfires

Posted at 10:23 AM, Sep 11, 2020

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY, Calif. -- With wildfires burning across the West Coast and coronavirus concerns impacting communities, emergency evacuation shelters in California are facing crisis and chaos.

In Santa Cruz County, leaders say local fires have displaced about one in every five residents.

That includes Anthony Koppe, who lost his house in Boulder Creek during the CZU fire.

“I don’t want to dwell on it too much. you know,” he said. “It’s happened and we got to move on.”

Koppe and many others from California’s Central Coast are now seeking help at a local recovery resource center where new safety measures have been added to combat COVID-19.

“If somebody has something, instead of passing it on, you can catch it at the door,” he said.

Just to get in those doors, people have to pass a pretty strict health screening, like filling out an extensive questionnaire and getting your temperature taken with a new touchless thermometer.

“It’s impacted everything,” Rosemary Anderson, emergency services manager for the County of Santa Cruz, said about how COVID-19 has changed how emergency evacuations shelters are operating.

Gone are the days of hundreds of cots stuffed in an auditorium. Now, places like Kaiser Permanente Arena, which normally holds 25,000 people, has a maximum capacity of 68.

“Everything was measured out so each of the tables and the resources are all 6 feet apart and people can interact from a distance where its COVID safe,” Anderson said.

COVID-19 concerns have also impacted other disaster relief organizations.

“Where we’d normally have 500 people in a gym, now we’re only doing about 50,” said Tony Briggs of the American Red Cross.

Briggs says the coronavirus has forced his teams to change how they help people cope with disaster during this pandemic.

“Now, with COVID, we can do all the listening, but you can’t do the contact,” he said. “And for some people, that hug is a really, really big deal.”

Even with the added attention to detail, leaders in Santa Cruz are expecting coronavirus transmission rates to increase because more people are coming in contact at these resource centers.

“If something is wrong with somebody, I definitely don’t want to catch it or my lady or my son,” Koppe said.

While people like Koppe may have lost their homes, these new safety measures haven’t let them lose hope

“It definitely gives me peace of mind,” he said.