Coronavirus and tornado shelters: Here’s what forecasters say you should do during a warning

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As tens of millions of Americans are told to stay home and avoid gatherings to help slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, forecasters have offered guidance about using shelters as tornado season approaches.

Tornadoes can happen any time of the year, but there are distinct seasons for twisters in different parts of the country, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center (SPC).

“There is a general northward shift in “tornado season” in the U.S. from late winter through midsummer,” the SPC says. “The peak period for tornadoes in the Southern Plains, for example, is during May into early June. On the Gulf Coast, it is earlier during the spring; in the Northern Plains and upper Midwest, it is June or July.”

HOW STRONG CAN TORNADOES GET? HERE’S A BREAKDOWN

On average, around 1,200 tornadoes are reported in the U.S. every year and kill about 60 people annually, mostly from flying or falling debris.

The average number of tornadoes in each state in the U.S.

The average number of tornadoes in each state in the U.S. (NOAA)

The National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Ala. said Sunday in a statement the Alabama Department of Public Health is recommending now during the COVID-19 pandemic the first priority during tornado warning should be “to protect yourself from a potential tornado.”

“If a warning is issued for your area, you are more likely to be affected by the tornado than the virus,” the weather service said.

Forecasters at the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center will issue what’s known as a “tornado watch” if weather conditions favor thunderstorms capable of producing tornadoes in a region. When a tornado has been sighted on the ground or is indicated by weather radar, forecasters will issue a tornado warning.

Tornado warnings encompass a much smaller area, like the size of a city or small county, that may be impacted by the storm being tracked by a spotter or on weather radar. They are issued by local forecast offices.

WHAT CAN YOU DO TO PROTECT YOURSELF DURING A TORNADO? WHAT TO KNOW

The NWS Birmingham went on to say that decisions to open any community shelters are made at the local or county level.

“Before you make a decision to go to a community shelter, you should check with your community shelter managers to ensure they are open, and if there are any local COVID-19 considerations,” the forecast office stated. “Certainly, wherever you choose to shelter from a tornado, you should use as many precautions as possible to inhibit the spread of COVID-19 as best as you can.”

For those who may rely on public community shelters, forecasters said that now may be the time to “explore other options that might keep you safer from severe weather and possibly limit your exposure to COVID-19.”

If you can't get to a safe room during a tornado, officials recommend going to the lowest level of a structure, such as a basement.

If you can’t get to a safe room during a tornado, officials recommend going to the lowest level of a structure, such as a basement. (iStock)

“The best way to prepare for this potential scenario is to keep up with the latest weather forecast as well as the latest recommendations regarding COVID-19 from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the ADPH, and local authorities,” the NWS stated.

Health agencies and local officials have been urging people to practice thorough hand washing, keep their hands off their face, stay home when sick and even employ social distancing in an effort to stifle the spread of novel coronavirus. While

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Some homes in the so-called “Tornado Alley” are equipped with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)-approved “safe rooms,” which, according to the organization, is a “hardened structure specifically designed to meet FEMA criteria and provide life-safety protection in extreme wind events, including tornadoes and hurricanes.”

However, if you are not able to reach a safe room during a tornado, it’s best to go to the lowest level of a structure, such as a basement. It is important to stay away from all windows, doors or anything else that leads outside, the Ready Campaign recommends.

Wearing a helmet and placing blankets, pillows or even a mattress over your body may protect you from debris if a tornado hits your home or a nearby building.

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