Weeks ago, civil defense officials in Mexico’s Tabasco state, one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic and now Tropical Storm Cristobal, asked health authorities for daily lists of infections in vulnerable communities.
State civil defense chief Jorge Mier y Terán designated a shelter in each township for people infected with the virus, but not hospitalized. His office advised Tabasco residents that during this hurricane season they should try to stay with relatives if rising waters forced them to leave their homes so as to avoid big gatherings in shelters, a recommendation shared by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Now authorities from Mexico’s Gulf coast to El Salvador in Central America are putting their storm season plans into action as the temporarily weakened Cristobal drops dangerous heavy rains while the pandemic reaches new heights in Mexico. The virus poses an additional risk for rescuers and evacuees and will make it harder to persuade people to leave their homes, experts say.
When Cristobal made landfall Wednesday as a tropical storm, Mier y Terán preventively evacuated 75 people from two communities. Their temperatures were checked and they were screened for symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The mix of the pandemic and what is expected to be a busy hurricane season has officials throughout the region worried about simultaneously managing multiple emergencies.
“COVID without a doubt complicates the operational logistics,” Mier y Terán said.
Cristobal weakened to a tropical depression Thursday with sustained winds of 35 mph (55 kph) after it moved inland. The storm emerged this week in the Bay of Campeche from the remnants of Tropical Storm Amanda, which had formed in the Pacific and pounded El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Together the storms have caused at least 30 deaths in El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.
Late Thursday, the storm was moving east at 3 mph (5 kph), about 145 miles (235 kilometers) south of the Gulf coast city of Campeche, capital of the state of the same name.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Cristobal was expected to begin strengthening once it moves back over the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday and become a tropical storm again. The storm is forecast to be out in the central Gulf on Sunday and could be nearing the U.S. Gulf Coast by late Sunday or Monday.
El Salvador has reported 27 deaths from the two storms and more than 11,000 people evacuated to more than 200 shelters.
“The development of the storm emergency in some way is going to influence the development of the illness,” said the country’s health minister, Francisco Alabí. He said infections could rise because people are more exposed when their homes are destroyed or damaged.
Cristobal is expected to leave more than a foot of water along Mexico’s Gulf coast over the course of the week. As it sits nearly stationary, the concern grows that the region’s rivers will spill over their banks potentially forcing thousands from their homes.
Many people in the poorer parts of Central America and southern Mexico often resist evacuations because they fear their belongings will be stolen, a situation aggravated now because of fears of the virus. The pandemic also increases risks for rescue crews like the one working to save a family from the rubble of their home on the outskirts of San Salvador on Thursday.
So far, only a couple hundred people had been evacuated along Mexico’s Gulf coast and none reported suspected virus infections. Overall, Mexico has more than 101,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, with nearly 12,000 dead.
David León, Mexico’s national civil defense director, appeared beside President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Thursday morning in Palenque in Chiapas state. He explained the government’s emergency response, but never referred to the pandemic. Asked for comment, his agency shared a link to recommendations and protocols for managing disasters during the pandemic that was shared with authorities around Mexico.
Carlos Valdés, former director of Mexico’s National Disaster Prevention Center and part of Mexico’s National Autonomous University’s program in Costa Rica, said there is consensus among disaster officials that the key will be identifying confirmed and suspected cases and then separating them from others. Having smaller shelters that still allow safe spacing of evacuees along with strict hygiene measures will also be important, he said.
The obvious challenge is people who are infected but asymptomatic, because testing everyone before evacuating them to a shelter is “not viable,” he said.
El Salvador has adopted among the strictest measures to combat the virus. In evacuating people from floodwaters and areas at risk of landslides, it screened them for COVID-19 symptoms, took their temperature and gave them masks when they arrived at shelters. Some shelters held as many as 300 people but mats were spaced at least six feet (two meters) apart. Families were grouped and separated from others.
Alabí, the health minister, said that so far none had tested positive for the virus in the 210 shelters.
On Thursday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned that the rains which forced nearly 30,000 Salvadorans from their homes were also making conditions worse for those already displaced internally by violence.
Valdés lauded El Salvador’s response. He said it would not be possible to talk of “returning to normalcy” during hurricane season.
In Mexico, the National Water Commission, which issues weather alerts, has forecast 15 to 18 named storms in the eastern Pacific and 15 to 19 in the Atlantic, where the average is usually a dozen.
Valdés said the confluence of tropical weather and pandemic ultimately will mean that the novel coronavirus “will be a problem for longer and will change the way it is spread.” It will be important to educate people about how the rain can lead to a rise in illnesses.
“People will have the idea that the water cleanses the virus, but we forget it’s water and soap. Water alone won’t get rid of it,” he said.
Associated Press writer María Verza reported this story in Mexico City and AP writer Marcos Aleman reported from San Salvador, El Salvador.