March 23, 2020

Storm Shelters: It's OK To Skip Social Distancing For An Hour If It Means Surviving A Tornado

Most Americans are parked at home right now as we try to slow the spread of a dangerous virus that's moving through communities here and around the world. But even as we adjust our lives to spare one another, the world continues around us just as it ever would. We're quickly moving into the heart of severe weather season and it won't be long before we have to deal with tornado outbreaks on top of everything else that's going on. It's important to remember that sheltering from a tornado is an urgent matter of life or death that (at least, temporarily) overrides our need to practice social distancing.

This may seem like a weird question to ponder for folks who live outside of the southern United States, but it's a pressing concern for lots of people who don't have safe shelter at home.

The concept of "community storm shelters" has grown in popularity in the south, especially after several devastating tornadoes and tornado outbreaks during the 2010s. A community storm shelter is a large reinforced room designed to hold lots of people—sometimes an entire neighborhood—who don't have a better alternative to ride out a storm.

Now that we're trying to slow the spread of COVID-19, huddling together with a few dozen of our neighbors doesn't sound like the best thing to do right now. The rapid approach of severe weather season is going to force people to choose between social distancing and staying safe from a tornado. Seeking shelter from a tornado is absolutely the best bet. In a dangerous situation like this, it's absolutely riskier to stay in an unsafe home and hope the tornado misses than it is to come in close contact with your neighbors.

The Alabama Department of Public Health released a joint statement with the National Weather Service offices in Huntsville, Birmingham, and Mobile, on Sunday addressing this concern. Their advice is simple: the urgent risk posed by a tornado temporarily outweighs the risk of the virus, and to seek shelter if one is available.

As the statement points out, it's critically important to know whether or not a shelter is open before severe weather strikes. If not, make alternate plans to stay somewhere safe before a warning is issued.

Tornado safety advice tells us to seek shelter in an interior room on the lowest level of a home or building. The goal is to put as much distance between you and the wind and flying debris as possible. The aftermath of stronger tornadoes often leaves just an interior bathroom or closet standing even as the rest of the house is swept away.

That's not always an option for some communities. Millions of people live in mobile homes that can barely withstand the wind gusts of a potent thunderstorm, let alone the violent winds of a tornado. Millions more live in homes without basements, modular homes, or apartment buildings, all structures in which you're often reduced to picking the least-worst option to ride out a tornado.

Folks who live in homes that can't withstand strong winds have to go somewhere else to stay safe ahead of a tornado. It's common practice for folks who live in mobile homes, for instance, to spend the day at the library or at a friend's or relative's house on a severe weather day. Unfortunately, there aren't many public spaces left open to seek shelter—libraries, schools, restaurants, and most other businesses are closed, which can limit one's options in a pinch.

Do what you need to do to stay safe. But during a tornado, it should go without saying that you've got to get to a safe place to ride out the storm.

Weather safety advice has come a long way in the last couple of decades, but there are still some pressing questions for which there's no easy answer. The most analogous scenario to this "distance or shelter?" question was a situation faced by thousands in and around Houston during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The storm produced historic flooding in southeastern Texas, and, as we commonly see during a landfalling tropical system, many of those heavy thunderstorms wound up spawning tornadoes. This put lots of people in the horrible situation of choosing between staying low in the water to escape the tornado or climb high away from the water and hope the tornado missed.

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.