Severe weather approaching, FEMA storm shelters stay open despite social distancing recommendations

Published: Mar. 18, 2020 at 7:57 PM CDT
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Severe weather could drive people into storm shelters Thursday. That doesn't leave much room for social distancing as we battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Springfield-Greene County health officials recommend people take cover in their FEMA storm shelters, despite restrictions on gatherings of 10 or more people.

"The Springfield Greene County Office of Emergency Management, The City of Springfield, The Greene County Commission and the Springfield-Greene County Health Department encourage the community to heed the current recommendations for sheltering – even if that means gathering in safe rooms or shelters where the numbers would exceed gathering limits," the Office of Emergency Management said in a news release.

Zac Rantz, the safety coordinator for Nixa Public Schools said after a discussion with state and local offices of emergency management, the district has been approved to keep its shelters open as well.

"I don't think any of us have expected to deal with tornadoes and a pandemic all at the same time," he said.

Rantz said their shelters will still be open during both tornado watches and warnings because of the immediate threat severe weather brings to the public, but the district is taking extra precautions.

"Everybody should expect people to be asked to probably space out, sanitize their hands and just be prepared for maybe not what they're quite used to," he said.

Rantz said the district's shelters can hold anything from a few hundred people to a couple of thousand people. The district has a procedure in place to track everyone who came into the building in case they need to notify them of possible exposure to the virus in the future.

"During a tornado warning, people rush into the building, so it's very difficult to take names as they come in," he said. "As people leave, depending on the situation, we do have a procedure in place to collect names [and] with something like this we will probably be doing that just to make sure that everyone that has been through we can track them down if needed."

Springfield-Greene County Health Department Director Clay Goddard said he has given FEMA shelters the go ahead to open up here in Greene County.

"This is a tough situation because we've asked people to social distance, but we know that we have the a potential for bad weather." he said. "We would rather that people take shelter in a storm and not be worried about that social distancing piece. "

Goddard said the same goes for taking shelter in your home.

"If you shelter in place with others lets not worry about the social distancing such as an apartment facility or places where you're going to have more than 10," he said. "The primary danger there of severe weather is much more acute than potential exposure to COVID-19."