A dollar store in Tishomingo, Miss., was destroyed after a suspected tornado. (Kayla Thompson/WTVA/AP)
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Hundreds in the United States have died and tens of thousands are being treated as the novel coronavirus continues to spread. Social distancing remains among the top priorities of medical experts, who recommend individuals come no closer than six feet to others in an effort to slow the virus’s spread. Schools and workplaces have been shuttered as social gatherings and religious ceremonies are forgone.

But there’s one activity that can’t be done remotely via the Internet, and it’s a matter of life or death: storm sheltering.

Severe thunderstorm and tornado season is soon to begin across the Deep South and the Plains. A number of tornadoes struck across the Deep South on Tuesday night, prompting a rare tornado emergency in Colbert County, Ala. There, life-threatening storms are a staple of springtime. With the likelihood of more dangerous storms to come, many are debating whether they should abandon social distancing and seek safety in a community storm cellar in the event of a tornado warning.

It’s a dilemma that’s left many scratching their heads, with a number of communities torn on what to do. But in some states, the verdict is in: Covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, should not stop you from going to a community storm shelter. Now, some experts and officials are working together to get the word out.

Alabama’s advice

On Sunday, National Weather Service offices in Alabama teamed up with the Alabama Department of Public Health, issuing a joint statement to guide residents.

“The decision to seek shelter in a community storm shelter is certainly made more difficult by the consideration for COVID-19,” read the statement. “At this time, the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) is recommending that your first priority should be to protect yourself from a potential tornado.”

The statement notes that if a warning is issued for your area, you are much more likely to be affected by a tornado than by the coronavirus.

“The collaboration call was very easy,” said John De Block, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Ala. His office initiated the effort to work with the state’s public health department.

“We asked the question [to ADPH], and they responded simply that their recommendation was to protect yourself from the most significant danger at the time,” De Block explained.

De Block said his office and others across Alabama are working hard to communicate this before severe weather strikes.

“We will social media the stew out of this thing,” he said.

In Oklahoma, meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Norman — arguably the country’s busiest office for tracking significant tornadoes — are working to pull agencies together and issue a joint statement of their own.

“I am actually coordinating with someone. … We’re working on something with the state,” said Rick Smith, the branch’s warning coordination meteorologist.

Smith said he began pursuing the collaboration after encountering concerning inconsistencies between various communities.

“Two communities said, ‘We’re opening our shelter.’ One said, ‘We’re not opening officially.' So it would be good to have some [state] guidance,” Smith said.

Their goal is to roll something out later this week.

In Tennessee, which was struck by deadly tornadoes earlier this month, the National Weather Service in Nashville said it was unaware of any ongoing efforts or collaboration to publicly address potential confusion.

Complicating factors

While some states — such as Alabama and Oklahoma — have been proactive about addressing sheltering concerns during the coronavirus pandemic, others have yet to do so. Many national and regional media outlets and forecasters are deferring to local agencies tasked with making decisions at the town or county level. Even if state officials and meteorologists largely agree that shelters should be open, it’s up to the towns to make that call.

“State and local emergency managers are responsible for public shelters and we defer any questions to them on this topic,” the National Weather Service said in a statement.

“The role of the NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] National Weather Service is to provide forecasts, warnings, and decision support.”

Even in Alabama, where the public health department “is recommending that citizens’ first priority [be] to protect themselves from a potential tornado,” it’s not the state’s call to open the shelters they feel should be available.

“Decisions made to open shelters are made at the local and county level,” the department said.

But in Jefferson County, Ala. — which includes Birmingham — county officials stated some shelters are managed by the county and others by towns. They urged their communities to plan to open shelters as normal if a severe weather threat presents itself but also said towns would be making their own calls.

Tuscaloosa County, Ala., noted it would be opening storm shelters. Officials in Madison County, which includes Huntsville, advised their communities to keep shelters open.

“Nobody has told us [they’re] not going to do this because of” covid-19, a spokesperson for Madison County emergency management said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer.”

Limestone County, Ala., opened most of its shelters, but instructed individuals to maintain social distancing while in them and bring their own sanitation supplies. Limestone County has been hit by at least three EF-5 tornadoes, the most intense on the 0 to 5 scale for twister strength.

Bradley County, Tenn., however, offers a different story.

“This evening, we’re definitely not going to open those storm ready rooms,” said an official on Tuesday night.

Newcastle, Okla. — which has been in the crosshairs of EF-5 tornadoes before — is also not opening its shelters, instead recommending “sheltering in place” in the event of severe weather, according to a dispatcher at the Newcastle storm shelter and emergency operations center.

Multiple hazards with conflicting action items

It’s not unheard of for multiple hazards to be at odds with one another in terms of how to prepare. In 2017, many Houstonians found themselves under flash flood emergencies and tornado warnings simultaneously during the onslaught of Hurricane Harvey’s record-setting floods. They were told to move immediately to higher ground and seek shelter as low as possible or below ground. And that’s a recipe for confusion.

“It’s a balancing act, really,” said Nnenia Campbell, a research associate at the University of Colorado at Boulder specializing in risk communication. “The guidance people are receiving kind of needs to go together.”

In the case of tornado sheltering and social distancing, Campbell said officials need to factor the coronavirus context into the advice they give and the warnings they issue.

“Trying to communicate other risks is challenging in this context, but coronavirus is here and now,” she explained. “Acknowledging the omnipresent risk of coronavirus in the presence of other risks that might come up is important. … How do we modify actions that are appropriate?”

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer according to Campbell. She said a one-size-fits-all approach for different ages and demographics can’t work for everybody.

“In all disasters, we have to pay attention to different levels of vulnerability,” she explained. “We have to recognize there are differential capacities, and some populations are more likely to be affected [by different threats] or be more hesitant to take action. People need [actionable guidance] to know what to do.”

That starts with trusted messengers, she explained. That, along with consistency of the message, is key.

“Selection of the messenger may vary by location, but most important is that the information people are receiving is consistent,” she said.

Campbell expressed that she felt Alabama was tackling the issue from the right angle: The state issuing guidance to help local municipalities to make the best decisions possible.

What to do

If you find yourself at risk of severe weather, experts say it’s imperative to plan ahead. That means double-checking to see if your shelter of choice will be open.

“Make sure [the] shelter you think is going to be open is open,” De Block said.

This is a sentiment echoed by multiple emergency management and meteorological agencies, who stressed the importance of advanced preparation.

Several additional chances of severe weather are predicted this week, including by Friday in Oklahoma and Saturday over the Tennessee Valley. On average, April and May are peak months for tornadoes across the Lower 48, with a stormy couple of months ahead.