Coronavirus prompts cities, residents to rethink use of storm shelters

BY KATHRYN MCNUTT
Oklahoma Watch
03/23/2020 11:30 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
A tornado over the plains of Oklahoma. JIM KURDZO/UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA VIA OKLAHOMA WATCH
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative stories on important issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org. COURTESY
OKLAHOMA CITY – When tornadoes and severe storms threaten communities this spring, residents may find their public storm shelters are not open.

They may also find they’re less willing to hurry to their neighbors’ house to protect themselves by crowding into their underground shelter.

“The COVID-19 pandemic arrived just as we are entering into our primary storm season,” said Keli Cain, public information manager at the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

Federal and state public health officials recommend people avoid gathering in groups larger than 10 to slow the spread of the disease. Local jurisdictions will have to make the call whether to open their public shelters, Cain said.

“Public facilities may be closed. We’re really encouraging people to start thinking about that now,” she said. “This is just March. We still have April, May and June where we have a high frequency of severe weather.”

Newcastle, located west of Norman, has a city-owned shelter that is rated to hold 1,094 people, but it’s closed for now.

“We are not going to open the shelter at this time,” said City Manager Kevin Self, who doubles as the city’s emergency management director. “We can’t run the risk of exposure to coronavirus.”

City officials are telling residents to make a new plan this spring.

Self said as many as 1,200 people came to the shelter in 2011, when a tornado hit nearby. Fewer residents are coming since the city received three grants that helped 400 to 500 people install storm shelters on their property, he said.

“We have a long way to go with the storm season. Hopefully, we don’t have that long with coronavirus, but we’ll see,” Self said.

Some emergency management groups and agencies have recommended against public storm shelters. They tend to be scarcer in larger cities because they encourage people to travel in panic during a storm and may not be large enough. Other issues are liability risks, people who try to bring their pets into a public shelter, access for the disabled, and deciding who’s responsible for unlocking and shutting the doors.

In Canadian County, all public storm shelters are at El Reno Public Schools.

When school is in session, the students and staff are the priority, then other residents can enter as space allows, said Andrew Skidmore, county emergency management director.

County and city officials haven’t decided what to do this year in light of the coronavirus spreading daily, Skidmore said.

“That’s still really new. There are talks going on,” he said.

McLoud City Manager Buck Day said residents of the Pottawatomie County community, whose population is under 5,000, use the storm shelter at the school.

“It will be open,” Day said. “It’s one of those deals where everyone will have to decide (to use it or not).”

Rob Hill, director of the Stillwater Emergency Management Agency, said the city doesn’t have public storm shelters and he recommends residents “shelter in place” during severe storms. That means taking shelter on their property, such as in a basement, a safe room or a small interior room on the lowest level.

Hill, who also is president of the Oklahoma Emergency Management Association, said he thinks the COVID-19 epidemic will cause some Oklahomans not to hunker down with their neighbors in a residential storm shelter.

“You got to remember that we have told people for the last week and a half to social-distance,” Hill said. Some will be reluctant now “to go into a box that’s six foot by six foot, breathing the same air.” Others won’t worry much about it.

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