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.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Updated July 23, 2020
What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
Is the coronavirus airborne?
- The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
What’s the best material for a mask?
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
- So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
“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.”