Tornado shelter1

Signs are displayed to indicate the restrooms in the Ralph Brown Draughon Library as severe weather shelter areas.

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Many Lee County residents are worried about the coronavirus, but for others when storms roll around, their minds focus on the weather, said Rita Smith, Lee County Emergency Management Agency director.

Just over a year ago, many county residents had their lives flipped upside down by the March 3 tornado in Beauregard and Smith Station.

Smith offers encouragement for those who are worried about finding shelter in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I have been bombarded with questions, mostly from citizens who were affected by the March 3 tornadoes, that what are we going to do about shelters if they have to go to a shelter?” Smith said.

There is a plan for incorporating social distancing into shelters, she said. One major way shelters will be affected is by capacity, limiting the number of people allowed inside.

“Obviously if you present sick at the shelter you’re not going to be able to stay at the shelter,” Smith said. “If you’re running a fever, they’re not going to let you stay at a community shelter.

“And it’s tough decisions and it’s hard to make these tough decisions sometimes when you’re talking about a pandemic versus somebody being in a home that maybe they don’t feel safe in for a tornado.”

Smith did not release the names of the shelters as the EMA is still in the process of confirming that each is still willing to act as a shelter.

She said that the names of shelters will only be released when severe weather is imminent, as agencies can decide to opt out.

Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said that certain problems come to the forefront of his mind when imagining a scenario of both a tornado and social distancing.

Personal Protective Equipment would be needed to deal with aid, he said, though that wasn’t a concern a year ago.

“It would be a given that that would be a necessity,” Jones said. “We would certainly have to do that and certainly there would be a lot more attention to medical history and a different set of questions that we would have for individuals that we’re coming in contact with.”

He recommended that anyone who has this kind of equipment now be willing to donate it to the hospitals and first responders.

Not only would responders need the equipment in the event of a tornado, but they need it now, Jones said.

“Certainly, the request would be, in the interest of community safety and just overall benefit to the community to get those things into the hands of the people who need them the most,” Jones said.

Other challenges would arise given the event of a tornado, such as utilizing volunteers, he said.

“Under the circumstances that we’re currently facing, the recommendations are to stay home and not get out in public and expose yourself to lots of people. Well then, what is the balance?” Jones said. “What is the tipping point, where you need volunteers to assist but yet you want to protect their health through exposure to potentially virus exposure?

“That would be a tough question, a tough, tough situation.”

Jones said he believes Lee County would be able to come up with a solution.

Smith said she and the county continue to seek solutions.

“Let our citizens understand that we haven’t forgotten about what we do day-to-day just because we’re having a crisis,” she said. “We’re still taking care of day-to-day operations and still thinking about them and what it would look like should they have to shelter in place.”

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