Tornado or virus? Pandemic means tough sheltering decisions

Published 1:36 pm Thursday, April 9, 2020

As each day brings the United States closer to peak severe weather season, Tornado Alley residents are facing a difficult question: Is it better to take on a twister outside a community shelter or to face the possibility of contracting the new coronavirus inside one?

So far, sheltering from deadly weather appears to be taking precedent over staying away from a potentially deadly disease, but not for everyone.

In north Alabama, where powerful tornadoes killed dozens in recent years, a little more than 700 people showed up at three shelters — a turnout that was actually larger than usual, due to especially dire storm predictions — when potentially dangerous weather threatened the Tennessee Valley in late March.

Two of the shelters were located in schools, where workers urged people to stay 6 feet (2 meters) apart in accordance with pandemic rules about social distancing, said Decatur Police Chief Nate Allen. They also asked whether anyone felt ill, and people who said they did were directed to an isolation room near an exterior door.

“They were pretty honest about it,” Allen said. One elderly couple who were concerned about both disease and twisters locked themselves in a teachers lounge, he said.
No one was hurt in the storms, and Allen said authorities haven’t heard of any health problems linked to the sheltering, which lasted about an hour.

But the need for shelters and people’s concerns about going to them during a historic pandemic will surely arise again soon. Forecasters said there was a chance of powerful storms in Texas on Thursday, and severe weather including tornadoes could threaten the South from Louisiana to Georgia on Easter Sunday.

April through June is peak tornado season in the United States, which averaged about 1,250 tornadoes annually in the decade ending in 2010, according to statistics from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.

The Plains, the Midwest and the Southeast are particularly vulnerable, with a six-state region including Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas most likely to get hit by strong twisters, the records show.

Emergency planners, health officials and forecasters are generally advising people to take their chances with the virus when a tornado is headed their way.

“We should not let fear of the coronavirus blind us to the danger of an imminent tornado,” Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said in a statement. “If you have to seek refuge in a community shelter, try to practice social distancing and other precautions as much as possible to minimize your risk.”

The National Weather Service and the Alabama Department of Public Health put it more bluntly in a joint statement as severe weather approached last month while virus worries were growing.

“If a warning is issued for your area, you are more likely to be affected by the tornado than the virus,” it said.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Home health worker Flora Thomas would rather take her chances with a twister than the new coronavirus, even though a monster tornado in 2011 killed more than 50 people, badly damaged her home and shattered her Tuscaloosa neighborhood, where there are still more empty lots than rebuilt homes.

“I’m more worried about the virus. I would stay home,” Thomas said. Christopher Hood, who lives nearby, agrees.

“Packed in with a bunch of other people in a shelter? I wouldn’t want to be in that position right now,” said Hood.

In southeastern Mississippi last week, residents didn’t have a choice about what to do. Within moments of the first warning, a tornado tore an 8-mile-long (13-kilometer-long) path of destruction through the area, with homes ripped apart and sheds flying through the air, said George County Emergency Management Director Nancy Smith.
“There was no time to think about opening shelters,” Smith said.

Tornado season eventually gives way to hurricane season, which begins June 1, and officials along the coast already are considering what to do should a tropical storm system draw near while the region is still under lockdown because of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

In Panama City, Florida, which was devastated by Hurricane Michael in October 2018, emergency services director Frankie Lumm said he plans to open more shelters than usual and have more rooms in each than he typically does, to allow for social distancing.

But even that won’t be simple: The area is still low on shelters because schools are still being rebuilt after Michael, he said, and providing staffing for additional shelters could be a challenge during a pandemic.

“The rock meets a hard place if I begin to have a hurricane while this is still in full mode,” Lumm said.