Because of social distancing adjustments required during the COVID-19 pandemic, the county currently can shelter more than 5,000 evacuees with the ability to expand that further.
SHALIMAR — Usually, Okaloosa County has the capacity to house more than 10,000 people who evacuate their homes ahead of a threatening major storm.
And that’s room for about 8,000 more than they typically see.
"Historically, Okaloosa County has seen a maximum of 2,000 evacuees during major incidents," county Public Safety Director Pat Maddox said in an email.
Because of social distancing adjustments required during the COVID-19 pandemic, the county currently can shelter more than 5,000 evacuees with the ability to expand that further, Maddox said. The county traditionally has access to at least 11 shelters, most of which are at schools.
"The key to everything we do is safety," Maddox said. "We will be screening those who are in need for shelter for signs/symptoms of illness so that we can ensure the person has access to medical attention while in a shelter as well as to limit the potential spread of the COVID virus to those without visible signs and symptoms."
Evacuees will be given masks if they do not have their own while in the shelter, as well as additional hygiene steps to provide a clean environment to shelter in, Maddox said.
He said meals may be provided in a individualized way to reduce contact, similar to how restaurants moved from dine-in to take-out services.
"All of these measures are for everyone’s safety and to ensure that everyone has a place to go if they need to," Maddox said.
Forecasters from NOAA predict an "above-normal" 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, which began Monday and runs through November.
They forecast a likely range of 13 to 19 named storms, with winds of 39 mph or higher. Of those storms, six to 10 could become hurricanes, with winds of 74 mph or higher, including three to six major hurricanes, with winds of 111 mph or higher.
An average hurricane season produces 12 named storms, of which six become hurricanes, including three major hurricanes, according to NOAA.
Maddox said that in many cases, the best place residents can shelter in during an emergency may be at home or with family or friends outside of impacted areas.
"Residents should know what evacuation zone they live in and follow the instructions from official sources as to whether it is safe to shelter in place or to evacuate," Maddox said. "Understand that if you do shelter in place, you may lose power and drinking water for several days."
He said residents should be prepared with food and water for at least 72 hours for each member of their family as well as their pets.
"If you have the means to do so, be prepared with enough supplies for seven days," Maddox said. "In a disaster, no one will be turned away who are seeking shelter. It may not be the most comfortable experience, but you will be safe and you will have basic services such as food, water and restroom facilities."
The county’s hurricane guide, along with an abundance of other hurricane preparation information, is available at http://www.co.okaloosa.fl.us/ps/emergency-management.