A severe weather outbreak, including the threat of widespread damaging winds, large hail and potentially strong tornadoes, is likely this weekend for portions of the South. The storms come as coronavirus concerns have prompted the shuttering of many community storm shelters, since some public officials fear the repercussions of prioritizing tornado safety over social distancing.

In advance of this weekend’s anticipated onslaught of vicious weather, the American Meteorological Society, the scientific organization representing about 12,000 meteorologists, is seeking to prevent people from avoiding tornado shelters due to coronavirus fears.

“Do not let the virus prevent you from seeking refuge from a tornado,” wrote the AMS in a public statement released Thursday afternoon. “If a public tornado shelter is your best available refuge from severe weather, take steps to ensure you follow CDC guidelines for physical distancing and disease prevention.”

Their advice echoes a March joint statement released by the National Weather Service and the Alabama Department of Public Health. “Your first priority should be to protect yourself from a potential tornado,” that statement said. They noted that individuals in the path of an approaching storm were far more likely to be affected by a tornado than by the virus.

The AMS statement suggests a community shelter should be a last resort, if a person’s permanent residence does not provide adequate refuge (e.g. there is no basement and/or if it is a manufactured or mobile home).

“Determine if your home can provide you with a good location to take refuge, such as a basement or an interior, windowless room,” the statement says. “If you cannot take refuge in your home, discuss sheltering with neighbors, friends, or family. If your community has shelters, verify now which will be open and operating during the pandemic.”

Impending tornado outbreak spurs call to action

With atmospheric ingredients lining up for a potential high-end event, the AMS hopes to improve awareness and offer insight into this issue.

“There had been some discussion on a statement … for a bit, but we did work hard to get it done this week,” said Keith Seitter, executive director of the AMS, in an email. “[We wanted] to have it in place prior to the potential severe weather this weekend.”

Already, the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center has taken the unusual step of declaring a “moderate risk” of severe weather for portions of the Deep South on Sunday. That’s a level 4 out of 5 on their severe weather scale, highlighting the potential for damaging winds and long-track tornadoes.

The AMS stopped short of encouraging emergency managers to open shelters, however. Seitter wrote that “[the] AMS respects that those decisions need to be made on the local and regional level.”

Challenges of risk communication: How to weigh multiple hazards

While it may seem like a straightforward decision, the presence of multiple hazards presents a formidable communication challenge. Ongoing social science research within the meteorological community has found that the public responds best to a unified, actionable message. Otherwise, it can be difficult for those in harm’s way to rank various risks and prioritize action items accordingly.

That decision-making process is made even more problematic when the actions associated with handling different risks conflict — like being told to seek refuge from a tornado, possibly in a community shelter, while also being directed to remain isolated at home away from others.

Examples of multiple hazards show mixed results

The weather community has dealt with multiple simultaneous hazards before — and at times with tragic consequences. On May 31, 2013, several people sheltering from a massive tornado in El Reno, Okla., hid in a ditch — heeding the advice to get as low to the ground as possible. They perished when floodwaters engulfed that culvert, drowning in the sudden deluge. A total of 13 people succumbed to flash flooding in Oklahoma that day.

Similarly, during Hurricane Harvey’s 2017 assault on Houston, when between 3 and 5 feet of rain fell on the Houston metro area, residents also faced a choice between climbing to an upper floor of their home to escape rising waters or going to the basement when tornado warnings were in effect.

Historic flash flooding forced many residents onto their rooftops at a time when dozens of tornado warnings were issued around the city. The local National Weather Service forecast office handling the event was forced to adapt in real time — since they knew the deadly flooding posed a much greater threat.

“It’s something up until Harvey we hadn’t really dealt with a lot at the Houston office,” said Lance Wood, the science and operations officer at the National Weather Service in Houston. “We were under continuous tornado watches for about four days … [even] as the really big flooding happened.”

“It made us think a lot, since most people realized that flooding was their main threat if they were in the [flood] emergency area,” Wood explained. They scaled back the number of tornado warnings issued, reserving them for high-likelihood events, but they knew they had to go a step further.

“What we thought of since then is that, if we do issue a tornado warning in a flash flood emergency area, we should state in the warning which is your main threat,” Wood said.

That was put into practice on September 19, 2019, when Tropical Storm Imelda’s severe flooding targeted portions of East Texas and southwest Louisiana. Wood issued a tornado warning for an area dealing with flash flooding, but this time, the warning read a little differently.

“A severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado was located near Winnie,” read the warning. “The main threat remains flash flooding, as this area is in a flash flood emergency.”

Meteorologists also removed the automatically generated text in the tornado warning that instructed residents to head to their basement.

Communicating weather risk during a pandemic

This weekend’s threat isn’t just weather hazards at odds with one another — it’s a pandemic versus the violence of Mother Nature. Some National Weather Service offices have already begun implementing changes to fit their severe weather warnings into a covid-19 context.

The National Weather Service in Wakefield, Va., for instance, is making an effort to mention more hospital locations in their warnings. A severe thunderstorm warning issued on Tuesday warned that “people at Rappahannock General Hospital should seek safe shelter immediately!”

“We had [emergency management] email us, basically with a listing of where those [testing] locations are, and which hospitals have tent services set up,” said Jeff Orrock, the meteorologist in charge at that office. Orrock was referring to covid-19 testing locations, most of which are located outdoors in tents.

“We can go into our warning software and put in the locations of those hospitals.”

Now, the hospitals can be highlighted both on their maps and automatically when severe weather warnings are issued. So far, Orrock’s office has added into their warning program 31 hospitals across portions of northeastern North Carolina, southeastern Virginia, and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

It’s not the only office to do so. The NWS office in Milwaukee also issued a severe thunderstorm warning on Tuesday that called out covid-19 testing locations.

“People attending Outdoor Testing at Aurora in Grafton, and Outdoor Testing at Ascension in Mequon should seek safe shelter immediately!” the warning urged. Large hail missed the location by just a few miles.

The same technique of adding locations to the warning software has been used in the past for large concerts, sporting events and even political rallies.

The bottom line

Issuing accurate severe weather warnings is challenging enough, and ensuring those warnings enable residents to act quickly to protect life and property is another significant hurdle.

But with steps already in place along with the guidance of authorities like the AMS, one can hope that residents of the South are prepared for any severe weather that heads their way this weekend. That, though, requires a bit of work ahead of time.

Some communities have already announced closures, while others have confirmed shelters will remain open. Knowing where your community stands ahead of time could save your life if your residence itself does not offer adequate shelter.