With tornadic activity possible locally today, area emergency officials say community storm shelters will be open, but residents should consider an alternative safety plan base on coronavirus concerns.
“There’s no guarantee there will be the recommended social distancing and it might be crowded,” said Eddie Hicks, Morgan County Emergency Management Agency director. “Enter at your own risk.”
The state on Friday issued an emergency order prohibiting non-work gatherings of more than 25 people or of any size in which a consistent 6-foot distance cannot be maintained between people.
The National Weather Service in Huntsville said there is a threat of severe storms in the forecast from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. today.
“We could see hail and wind damage in the morning,” said NWS Meteorologist Laurel McCoy. “But the system moving through could be stronger in the afternoon and evening with gusty winds, hail and tornadoes. Stay weather aware and have a plan.”
Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling said Austin High and Decatur High each have storm shelters that will be open if a tornado watch is issued, and the Decatur Police Department will provide security at the venues.
“The Alabama Department of Public Health says, at this time, your first priority should be to protect yourself from a tornado,” he said. “If a warning is issued for our area, you will be more likely to be affected by the tornado than the virus. Now is the time to review your inclement weather plan.”
Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long agreed protection from a tornado is of more immediate concern than contracting the COVID-19 virus.
“We have shelters all over the county, probably 20 stations out in different areas. We sent out an email yesterday for people that manage those shelters to put up a sign to let people know that we’re going to be open if we have a tornado, but also with a warning that you put yourself at risk (if more than 25 people are inside),” he said. “Most of our shelters will hold between 96 and 98 people. If a storm’s coming, it’s better to set that COVID-19 aside and get in a shelter. Our shelters will be open, but we asked them to put up a sign that we can’t guarantee the 6-feet apart.”
Morgan County District 2 Commissioner Don Stisher said safe alternatives to a storm shelter should be explored.
“It’s going to be a tough call,” he said. “If I had to make a decision involving a life-or-death situation or possibly contracting the coronavirus, I’d seek safety in the shelter and take my chances. Do your homework and see if there is somewhere in the house that can provide some safety.”
No positive tests for COVID-19 had been reported in Morgan or Lawrence counties as of Monday, but Madison County had 21 confirmed cases and Limestone County had one. Cullman had two cases and Lauderdale County had three.
Lawrence and Limestone EMA offices said the community shelters would be open before the bad weather arrives and residents should use precautions. However, Athens City Schools said Monday afternoon that Athens High School's storm shelter will not be open because of COVID-19 concerns.
“With the threat of severe weather on Tuesday, we ask residents to think about their shelter options,” Limestone EMA officer Daphne Ellison said in a release. “If you must take shelter in one of our community safe rooms, you must use as many precautions as possible to inhibit the spread of COVID-19. You will be required to practice social distancing between yourself and others, if possible. You will need to bring your own sanitation supplies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
McCoy said some parts of the Valley received up to 1½ inches of rain early Monday. She said the area should dry out some beginning Wednesday through Friday.
Morgan County District 1 Commissioner Jeff Clark said Mud Tavern Road was closed Monday afternoon because of the overnight rainfall.
"With the rain we've had, it probably won't be reopened until Thursday or Friday," he said. "Avoid the area."
McCoy said Tuesday’s high should be about 76 degrees with Friday reaching 83.