As cities, towns and states work to decide the best ways to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, those in public safety are also working on guidelines for emergency storm shelters.
Emergency management personnel in many cities and towns are promoting the continued use of shelters in times of severe weather such as storms, tornadoes and hurricanes. However, it is also recommended to take extra precautions to keep your family safe, including wearing masks and keeping 6 feet apart. Health and safety guidelines such as not touching your face, washing hands frequently, not touching commonly used areas and removing clothes and shoes before reentering your home are also recommended to protect your family.
When preparing to evacuate in a severe weather emergency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests creating a “go kit” with personal items, including those that will help keep you safe in a pandemic such as a face covering, soap, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer. It is also recommended to check the local shelter to ensure it is open and the location has not been changed due to COVID-19. Individuals should also check with the local shelter regarding pet policy. The CDC states those who are evacuating should follow all safety precautions and guidelines when traveling and while at the shelter.
While staying at the shelter, individuals are recommended to cover coughs and sneezes, wash hands often, wear facial coverings and avoid sharing food and drink when possible. Specific shelter policies to help protect those at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, such as older adults and those with underlying medical conditions, should also be followed. Handrails and other frequently touched surfaces should be avoided. Individuals who touch these surfaces should wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol immediately, as recommended by the CDC. Frequently touched items, such as toys, electronics and phones, should also be cleaned and disinfected often.
Travis Cooper, Sebastian County, Ark.’s, Department of Emergency Management and Public Safety deputy director, is ensuring the storm shelters stay open for those who need them while maintaining the guidelines set forth by the governor, state health department and CDC. Cooper is sharing the information and guidelines passed down and encouraging everyone who utilizes the shelters to practice social distancing, wear a face mask and use hand sanitizer.
As long as social distancing can occur, Cooper stated they are not limiting the number of people in the shelter. Earlier this year, he commented, “Due to severe weather, the shelters were activated when the sirens went off, although the population did not use them as much as in the past.”
For those who are experiencing symptoms or have tested positive, Cooper asks they understand the requirements and suggestions of health organizations.
In times of severe weather, he said, “We advise that anyone who is able to shelter in place in the inner most part of the home or structure to be safe, please do so.” However, he also stated, “Storm shelters do not discriminate the safety of any one person.” Many health and safety precautions are taken in the shelter, but the ultimate goal is to keep as many people safe as possible.
When severe weather season hit in the spring, Bradley County in Tennessee initially only had one emergency storm shelter location open — a school that had been unoccupied for approximately a month and provided the safest options for individuals wanting a safe place to weather a storm. Troy Spence, the director of emergency management for Bradley County, Tenn., stated that all individuals evacuating to the shelter were supplied with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, which they were required to wear and use at all times during their stay in the shelter.
Since only one shelter location was open to the public, Spence emphasized that the city was watching weather patterns very closely. When severe weather was coming April 12, the city was able to send out an early warning system notice even prior to the weather service so those who needed to evacuate had ample time. That evening, a little before midnight, a tornado struck the area. With the early warning, Spence stated there were approximately 70 people safely sheltered at the school. This was a slightly higher number than normal, which he believes was due to only one shelter being opened.
Now, as cities and states are beginning the process of gradually reopening, all of the shelter locations will be open to the public should severe weather threaten to strike again. However, the procedure for staying in a shelter will remain the same with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer in use at all times.
“We’re ready in the event we have any tornadic activity or high winds,” he emphasized.