Hurricane’s Choice for Texans: Shelter From the Virus or the Storm


CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Bartt Howe’s boat was his refuge from the pandemic. Battling diabetes and H.I.V., he knew that catching the coronavirus as well could kill him, so he had been living alone on the docked boat for three months.

Then Hurricane Hanna began to slam the Texas coast on Saturday, forcing Mr. Howe to trade one deadly menace for another: To avoid injury or death in the hurricane, he had to risk infection ashore.

“I had managed to stay safe all this time, but the storm kicked me out of my boat,” he said with a hint of resignation. “Now here I am, back on land, on borrowed time.”

Corpus Christi, about 160 miles north of the Texas-Mexico border, was already wrestling with a worsening virus outbreak when Hanna, a Category 1 hurricane, made landfall at about 5 p.m. Saturday. Residents like Mr. Howe and area officials have had to figure out — quickly — how to cope with two dueling crises, each complicating the response to the other.

Much of the surge in Covid-19 cases in the region has been attributed to visitors from bigger cities like Houston who flocked to the area’s beaches when case counts were still low, officials said. More than 10,000 people in Nueces County, which includes Corpus Christi, have now been infected with the virus, and at least 140 people have died.

“When I saw that the hurricane was headed our way, I thought, we have enough problems,” said the mayor of Corpus Christi, Joe McComb.

In ordinary times, city officials would ask people in seaside and flood-prone areas to evacuate and seek shelter with relatives or in emergency shelters — places where people share bathrooms and tight quarters, health officials said. But fear of contagion has thrown old protocols out the window.

So how do you keep people safe through a hurricane when the coronavirus shows no signs of abating? “Very carefully,” said Annette Rodriguez, the county public health director.

Hanna has not displaced many people, as hurricanes go. Only about 10 people sought shelter in the county Saturday night, Ms. Rodriguez said. The relatively low-stakes storm allowed area officials to assess how to help people evacuate safely while diminishing the spread of the virus.

“Having two events tied together, it is just a huge challenge,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “It was definitely a good trial run.”

When the next hurricane comes, officials plan to start evacuation procedures five days in advance, instead of the standard three, Ms. Rodriguez said. Officials also plan to seal off alternate seats on buses transporting evacuees to safer areas, and increase the number of trips the buses make to compensate.

Once evacuees reach a shelter — usually a high school gymnasium — officials would ensure that they wear masks and keep their distance from one another, Ms. Rodriguez said, adding that shelters “would have a separate section for anyone sick.”

“We don’t want to leave anybody behind,” she said. “But we also want to stop the virus from spreading.”

Officials acknowledged that the guidance they gave the public could be confusing and at times conflicting.

“Our message was, take care of yourself, but if you need to seek shelter, bring a mask or three,” Mr. McComb said. “You have to protect yourself from a storm, but at the same time, we don’t need more cases of the coronavirus.”

Residents woke on Sunday to a battered region. The Red Cross reported some severe flooding in coastal areas, widespread power outages and property damage, including roofs blown off houses, but no severe injuries.

Mr. Howe, 49, was one of the handful of people who sought shelter Saturday night at a high school in Kingsville, a rural town about 45 miles from Corpus Christi. He returned to Harbor El Sol Marina in Corpus Christi Bay Sunday afternoon to check on his beloved 27-foot boat, Sera Sera, a name he found ironic now.

“What will be, will be,” he said. “And that’s how it is.”

As the storm bore down on Saturday, he initially intended to ride it out on board, he said, even as his marina neighbors fled the aggressive sea surges. By 11:30 p.m., though, the waves were hammering the boat hard.

“I couldn’t even see the sea wall — that’s how bad it got,” he said on Sunday, a green mask covering his mouth and nose.

“I knew that if I got it, I would die,” he said of the virus. “But I had no choice. I knew it was time to go.”

A fellow boater who managed to reach him by phone alerted emergency responders to his situation, and they threw a rope his way and got him to safety, Mr. Howe recalled.

Johnny Heath, 42, joined Mr. Howe at the marina Sunday afternoon and spotted his own boat, the Classified Cat, floating behind some dock debris and mangled vessels. It was missing a few walls, and water had damaged most of its furnishings, he could tell from where he stood.

“Everything is ruined,” Mr. Heath said. “I was working on that boat, was trying to make it electric. I was planning on living there for the rest of my life. Now look at it.

“But at least I’m still alive,” he said with a shrug.

John Nolan, 55, who owns two boats in the marina, said he’d had a brush with the virus months ago, and had recovered quickly from a mild fever. His economic losses from the storm will take a lot longer, he said.

“They are in bad shape, but still floating, better than others,” Mr. Nolan said of his boats. Not far away, a few more worried residents picked personal belongings from a pile of debris. A woman found a pair of tennis shoes and a man grabbed a helmet.

A woman who Mr. Howe knows only as Sheila called to him, “Hey, Bartt! You made it out alive!”

“I did — I survived,” he said, smiling behind his mask. “At least, this time.”

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