How to prepare for severe weather in the age of social distancing

Kevin Byrne

The coronavirus pandemic has changed life on Earth dramatically over the last several months. Countries have completely closed their borders, businesses have shuttered, schools have emptied, and major cities have turned into ghost towns as millions self-quarantine in their homes to help reduce the spread of the disease.

But one thing that hasn't changed in the U.S. is that with the return of spring comes a spike in severe weather, and in turn, an increase in tornadoes.

Many communities across the country, especially those in Tornado Alley, are now grappling with how to utilize traditional public safety techniques in a world in which social distancing is the new normal.

Despite restrictions on public gatherings of 10 people or more, officials in Springfield-Greene County, Missouri, are encouraging local residents to adhere to any severe storm warnings and utilize community storm shelters as needed.

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In a statement issued Wednesday, March 18, Larry Woods, director of the Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management, said officials want citizens of Springfield and Greene County to know that personal safety is important and "use the community shelters that we are fortunate to have."

"Social distancing is important in this time, but please heed the warnings regarding severe weather," Woods said. "We would encourage property managers, as well, to continue to make their safe rooms and shelters available to their residents."

The county has seven Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) shelters, six of which are located in a Springfield Public School.

Alabama-based Meteorologist James Spann of ABC33/40 in Birmingham is no stranger to covering major severe weather events. Spann said residents should check with their local emergency management agency "to be sure the shelter you normally use is open."    "And first priority is being in a safe place during a tornado warning," he said on Twitter.

"Do 'social distancing' as best as possible," Spann said prior to a severe weather event on March 24.

Severe Weather Missouri
This still image taken from video provided by Chris Higgins shows a tornado in Carl Junction, Missouri, on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. The tornado caused damage in the town about 4 miles (6.44 kilometers) north of the Joplin Airport.

AccuWeather Meteorologist Tom Bedard, a volunteer firefighter and EMT who regularly works with emergency management officials, said residents who own a tornado shelter should clean the shelter out immediately and make sure they are stocked with blankets, helmets and backpacks with some clothes, necessities, and first aid equipment.

For those without a shelter, he recommended communicating with friends and neighbors to identify if someone can shelter with them.

"Have that conversation now and be at their house well before a tornado warning is issued," Bedard said.

If you can't make it to a shelter or a family or friend's residence, AccuWeather Meteorologist and Emergency Preparedness Specialist Becky DePodwin, said residents should take cover in bathrooms with no exterior walls, stairwells or a basement.

["The] main point is to put as many walls between you and the exterior walls," she said.

In the event that a tornado outbreak occurs and homes are lost, people could be forced to stay in shelters for an extended period. In such a scenario, DePodwin and Bedard, both of whom advise AccuWeather for Business clients on safety matters, say to make sure that you have a three-day supply of clothes and necessities in a backpack so that you can take it to a recovery shelter if needed.

They also stressed following local guidance on how to inform the shelter manager if you're sick prior to arrival.

"Be extremely mindful of your hygiene while in the shelter. Cough and sneeze into a cloth or into your elbow, avoid touching your face, and wash your hands as frequently as resources allow," Bedard said.

In some cases, children who are old enough may have to shelter on their own, particularly if their parent or guardian doesn't have the option to work from home. Bedard said parents should talk to their children about when they should shelter as well as practice sheltering procedures.

DePodwin added that parents should ensure kids have access to life-saving alerts. There are several ways to receive this information including via a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio, being tuned into the local TV station or having the free AccuWeather app installed on a smartphone.

The AccuWeather app has been proven the fastest at disseminating government-issued weather advisories -- but users need to ensure that severe weather alerts are turned on in the settings and the phone volume is turned up.

Communicating with family members is essential too.

"Talk with your children about the difference between a tornado watch, a tornado warning, and a severe thunderstorm warning, and that a tornado warning means take action immediately," DePodwin added.


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