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Tornado or virus? Pandemic means tough sheltering decisions

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?

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.

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 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.

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