A tornado warning Tuesday night for Decatur and northwest Morgan County led to heavy turnout at several storm shelters despite health officials' pleas to avoid crowds for COVID-19 prevention.

Eddie Hicks, director of Morgan County Emergency Management Agency, said he had hoped much of the public would have found alternative locations to seek shelter to prevent hundreds of residents being in close quarters. 

City and county officials said between 600 and 750 residents sought safety in the shelters at Decatur High, Austin High, City Hall and the Morgan County Courthouse during Tuesday night’s storms. Decatur Police Chief Nate Allen said Wednesday that 26 people were put in separate areas at shelters because they deemed themselves ill when they arrived.

Hicks said, “We had hoped there was not as many people as who came to the shelters. We want to stress if you have an alternative shelter plan, take it. The numbers last night were a direct result of a report that there was a tornado on the ground heading directly for Decatur. That helped a lot of people make a decision."

Emergency officials advised earlier in the week that if residents had to make a choice, seeking protection from a tornado should take priority over coronavirus concerns.

"We tried to let people know they couldn’t try to maintain social distancing," Hicks said. "We tried to put that information out there so people could make an informed decision. We try to get people to take shelter early. People should take shelter once a tornado watch is issued. After that, it could be too late.”

National Weather Service Meteorologist Andy Kula in Huntsville said a warning was issued because the conditions appeared right for the formation of a tornado.

“Radar indicated that a tornado was possible,” Kula said about the warning issued at 6:34 p.m. Tuesday for Decatur and northwest Morgan County. “The storm had rotation, enough rotation to indicate a possible tornado in Decatur.”

The warning was set to expire at 7 p.m. and later was extended twice to expire at 8 p.m., according to a National Weather Service alert.

Kula said the storm was the same system that brought tornadic activity and damage to northeast Mississippi and western Colbert County. He said that tornado was an EF-1 with maximum wind speed up to 110 mph.

Limited damage locally

Decatur city workers cleared a downed tree on Austinville Road Southwest about an hour after the storm passed Tuesday night. Hicks and the National Weather Service said they had no other damage reported in the county. 

In Limestone County, Athens Utilities is working to replace 10 utility poles that fell during Tuesday night's storm.

Eight of the utility poles that fell are in Belle Mina just north and south of the substation, according to Electric Department Manager Blair Davis.

"We are not sure yet whether it was a tornado or straight-line winds that caused the damage," he said.

In Lawrence County, County Engineer Winston Sitton said localized flooding on Lawrence County 383 in Hillsboro has the road closed.

"We had no calls about downed trees or other flooding," he said Wednesday afternoon.

Decatur police provided security at the city shelters.

“We had about 250 or so at each city shelter,” Allen said. “A lot of people waited until the last minute to come in. That is very dangerous.”

He said sick residents were segregated to nearby rooms in the shelters.

“We ask them if they are sick or not,” he said. “We’re on the honor system here. Most people are very honest.”

He said 14 said they were sick in the Austin High shelter and 12 in the Decatur High shelter. None seeking shelter at City Hall said they were sick, he said.

Police took headcounts of each person entering and leaving the shelters. “We want to ensure that we clear the shelter out with the same number of people who came in,” he said. “Somebody can get lost and go in a different area of a school.”

Wearing masks

In the county, Steve Poole, chief at Punkin Center Volunteer Fire Department, said about 50 people sought safety in the station’s shelter Tuesday night.

“About 90% of them wore masks,” he said. “I don’t think they were sick, just taking the extra precaution. People are getting better at watching the weather. When a storm hits Lawrence County (moving this way), our residents start coming in.”

He said the shelter is usually full when a tornado warning is issued, but he did not know if the lower-than-normal turnout related to coronavirus concerns.

Hicks urged community leaders to apply for federal grants to finance the building of more shelters. He also said the county should have some pet-friendly shelters. He said pets are not allowed in the confines of a shelter. “Some people going to a shelter are allergic to pets,” he said. Also, some pets are uncontrollable in a large crowd, he added.

Other topics discussed during a Wednesday morning news conference by the county's infectious disease task force:

• Robby Cantrell, executive director of the North Central Alabama Regional Council of Governments, said the council’s bus system is limiting rides to one passenger per trip and is disinfecting the buses between rides.

“The rides are limited to essential services, dialysis, groceries and employment,” he said, adding Morgan and Lawrence counties are served by the NARCOG buses. “Passengers are advised to stay at home if they are sick and limit travel unless necessary.”

He said transit fares have “ceased and will not resume until at least April 6.”

He said those needing a ride should call 256-580-2088, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and schedule trips several days in advance. Cantrell said 25 buses are in operation in Decatur.

• Cantrell also said senior citizens still are able to pick up meals by driving to the senior centers they usually attended before they were closed due to the viral outbreak. He said Meals on Wheels and the NARCOG nutrition program are providing the meals.

“We serve approximately 300,000 meals a year through our program and the service is not interrupted,” he said. “Participants who usually use transit to the centers are having meals delivered to their homes. Our normal homebound delivery hot meals has not stopped at this time. We are preparing for worst-case scenarios. If we are forced to stop delivery of hot meals, there are shelf-stable meals we can order. That is going on nationwide. We are in the process of making sure everything is in place so meals never stop.”

• Cantrell said small business owners can apply for financial assistance at Asbdc.org or call NARCOG at 256-355-4515.

• Hicks said the task force is not seeing any signs of price gouging of food or supplies and will continue to monitor items. He voiced concern about the rising price of meat in recent days. “Supply has not caught up with demand at the grocery store,” he said.

• Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling said the city's playgrounds are closed but the parks and trails remain open. He said the recycling waste collection set for April 11 has been canceled.

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mike.wetzel@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.

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