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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Spikes in COVID-19 infections and strong public messaging are starting to spur increased vaccination rates in hurricane-prone states, but more work is needed, the top U.S. official in charge of disaster relief, Deanne Criswell, told Reuters on Wednesday.

Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell discusses hurricane preparedness amid surging coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infections, acyclovir pills for cold sores and the impact of climate change on severe weather, during an interview with Reuters in Washington, U.S., August 18, 2021. REUTERS/Gabrielle Crockett

U.S. President Joe Biden last week urged here Americans in southeastern states – many of which have relatively low vaccination rates – to get their COVID-19 shots before the storm season picks up pace, citing an increased risk of exposure if people had to evacuate and use shelters.

Criswell, the first woman to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told Reuters in an interview at FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center in Washington that the strong appeals from Biden and other officials were starting to pay off.

“We want to make sure that you are protecting yourself, that you are protecting your family and those that you may come in contact with, if you have to evacuate,” she said, adding that surging infections also appeared to be playing a role in encouraging the reluctant to get their shots.

“They’re seeing the spikes in their own neighborhoods right now, and so they’re getting concerned,” she said. “Whatever the reason, now is the time to go get a vaccine.”

Officials in Florida’s Miami-Dade County and other areas were reporting increased interest in vaccinations, Criswell said, urging Americans to avoid politicizing the situation.

“Disasters aren’t red, disasters aren’t blue,” she said, referring to the colors traditionally associated with the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States. “We just want to make sure that we are putting everything in place ahead of the impact of a storm.”

She said FEMA was offering COVID-19 shots at disaster recovery centers set up in Louisiana and Detroit after recent storms, and would do so elsewhere. “It’s important to try to meet people where they’re at,” she said. “We want to make it easy for them to get (vaccinated).”

The spread of the coronavirus has been particularly severe in Florida and other parts of the southeastern United States, which are bracing for major storms as the country heads into the height of the Atlantic hurricane season.

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FEMA will continue to pay for hotel rooms and other smaller-scale shelters not normally authorized to accommodate families with small children and others who cannot get vaccinated, said Criswell.

The agency is also working with states to provide any needed equipment to ensure social distancing in larger-scale shelters, especially in more populous areas.

Criswell also said she was keeping close tabs on Tropical Storm Henri, which experts say could become a hurricane and hit New England hard in coming days.

CLIMATE CHANGE

Criswell said climate change would result in more severe storms and weather in coming years, and FEMA had a critical role to play in reducing the impact of natural disasters.

“We are definitely seeing the impacts of climate change,” she said, citing the Dixie fire here, now the largest in California’s history, the crippling cold snap here that knocked out power across Texas earlier this year, and other severe weather events.

The agency is offering an unprecedented $5 billion to help states and local communities do more to mitigate the risks of storms, wildfires and hazards, she said, adding that she would fight to maintain that funding level in coming years.

In the past, such funds had a $5 million cap, but the Biden administration has raised that cap to $50 million, which will fund bigger and more systemic projects, she said.

The agency is also urging more people to buy flood insurance, while establishing more differentiated insurance ratings to ensure that homeowners at the greatest risk are not being subsidized by others, she said.

FEMA this week also unveiled an expanded online National Risk Index to help local communities understand their specific risks of flooding, wildfires or other natural disasters, and then work to reduce them.

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