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As Storms Gather, Officials Urge Taking Shelter — Even If Distancing Is Not Possible

A screen grab from the NOAA web site shows where tornadoes could hit on Sunday. Most Shelters in Alabama and Mississippi will remain open despite concerns over the coronavirus.
A screen grab from the NOAA web site shows where tornadoes could hit on Sunday. Most Shelters in Alabama and Mississippi will remain open despite concerns over the coronavirus.

By most accounts, Saturday in the southeastern United States was beautiful, filled with blue skies and sunshine. Sunday could be the polar opposite, as the region faces the prospect of heavy storms, hail, damaging winds and violent tornadoes.

During dangerous weather, communities often open storm shelters. But shelters can get crowded — a potentially dangerous situation of its own at a time of social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

So how are states balancing the possible spread of the coronavirus, versus the potential for severe storms?

"Our state stands prepared and ready to face whatever Mother Nature brings, even amidst a health pandemic," Alabama Governor Kay Ivey saidin a statement on Saturday. "Both the National Weather Service and the State Public Health Department remind Alabamians that the use of shelters and other resources take precedent, should the need arise. The safety and protection of Alabama lives is paramount."

Ivey's comments echoed a Thursday statement by officials in neighboring Mississippi.

"The need to practice social distancing and prevent the spread of COVID-19 brings added complications to taking shelter from severe weather. However, state and federal officials agree that your top priority should be to protect yourself from a potential tornado," said the statement by the state's Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Health and the National Weather Service in Jackson, Miss.

Officials recommend sheltering in one's home when possible. But people living in mobile homes should head to a sturdier building, the NWS said, cautioning that people should still "take as many precautions as possible to inhibit the spread of COVID-19 as best as you can, continue social distancing, and frequent hand washing."

The American Meteorological Society stresses that it's important to find a safe place during a tornado, even as the coronavirus spreads. "Do not let the virus prevent you from seeking refuge from a tornado," the AMS saidin a statement on Thursday. If a public tornado shelter is your best place to take refuge, you should do that, it said.

The National Weather Service warned Saturdaythat the "very potent storm system" developing for Sunday will produce "a myriad of hazardous weather types." Severe storms could hit much of the southeastern U.S., with Louisiana through much of the Southeast and Tennessee Valley expected to see the greatest threat.

In Alabama, "the atmosphere will undergo a remarkable transformation tomorrow, and by the evening hours a very unstable airmass will be in place," meteorologist James Spann for the Alabama Weather Blog. The bulk of the severe weather will occur from 3 p.m. until midnight, with rain exceeding three inches possible over the northern quarter of the state.

Dozens of storm shelters will be open across the state. However, according to the local NBC affiliate, three counties — Butler County, Coffee County and Montgomery County — will not be opening shelters.

Some Alabama communities had announced that shelters would remain closed during the pandemic, only to later backtrack. In Alexander City, for example, the city police department posted on its Facebook page on Friday that the city would not have a shelter open. By Saturday, citing concerns from citizens — officials decided to open its city hall after all.

"Those that seek shelter will ENTER AT THEIR OWN RISK," the Alexander City Police Department saidon its Facebook page. The police noted that people's temperature would be monitored, and everyone would need to wear masks.

Tallapoosa County, where Alexander City is, has had at least 62 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and at least two people there have died from the illness, according to the state's health department.

Shelters in Mississippi will also be open, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said in a tweet. "You're encouraged to wear a mask, use hand sanitizer and practice social distancing to the best of your ability."

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Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").