KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As concerns about coronavirus continue to rise, local emergency management officials have another potential crisis on their radars: What happens if a devastating tornado strikes the metro amid the COVID-19 outbreak?
It’s something they worry could tax the already taxed medical and emergency systems.
“Unfortunately, Mother Nature doesn’t slow down because of COVID-19,” Matt May, the emergency management director of Wyandotte County, told FOX4. “People are having those conversations about what we would do if we had a tornado now.”
According to the National Weather Service, tornado season in this part of the country occurs from around mid-March through late June.
“With the peak occurring around May 22-May 23 with over 160 tornadoes occurring over that two-day period since 1920,” the National Weather Service states on its website.
Missouri and Kansas are part of “tornado alley,” which means both states are among the top five for tornado activity.
Remember that EF-4 tornado late last May that ripped through Linwood, Kansas, and stayed on the ground for 32 miles? That tornado – with wind speeds of 170 miles per hour – lifted off the ground on the north side of the metro, recycled and touched down again in Kearney as an EF-2 tornado.
“While we don’t know whether 2020 will be as active as 2019 was in the Kansas City area, from a safety standpoint our message is the same every year,” Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma, told FOX4.
“Everyone needs to prepare for the possibility of severe storms and tornadoes, and to monitor forecasts closely as we get closer to the heart of the severe weather season.”
Emergency management officials say they’re prepared for another tornado season. What they didn’t – and couldn’t until recently – factor into those preparedness plans was the Coronavirus outbreak.
They insist, however, they’re ready for the new challenges COVID-19 presents to their safety plans.
“We can work multiples disasters at the same time,” said Jane Welch, spokeswoman for the Kansas Adjutant General’s Department.
The state Division of Emergency Management is part of that department.
“We have guardsmen working the COVID-19 outbreak, but they’re also ready to be deployed if we have a national disaster. We live in Kansas. We have blizzards, flooding, and tornadoes all in the same timeframe. We are ready to handle all those disasters,” Welch added.
Les Boatright, assistant emergency management director of the Central Jackson County (CJC) Emergency Management Agency, said his teams are also ready to handle the wrath of Mother Nature amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We prepare for the unexpected,” he said. “We have a local emergency operations plan. We know our roles. For emergency management officials, it’s business as usual.”
The coronavirus, however, makes those tornado preparedness plans more complex.
“If people become displaced because of a tornado, we’ll follow the CDC recommendations,” Boatright said. “We can set up MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) shelters with precautions for COVID.”
Wyandotte County’s Matt May agrees sheltering displaced people during the coronavirus pandemic will be a challenge.
“We have a natural disaster plan in place and that (coronavirus) isn’t going to change our process,” he said. “And most people we’re concerned about should be at home during this time.
“The real problems will start with the recovery process when we have to open shelters for people who are displaced by a tornado. We’re going to have to try and distance people as best as we can. We’re going to have to be cognizant of those issues after an event (like a tornado).”
The American Red Cross is also planning how its teams will respond if a tornado hits during this pandemic.
“The Red Cross prepares for emergencies in all sorts of scenarios,” said Angie Springs, communications and marketing manager for the American Red Cross in Missouri and Arkansas. “Conversations about those are happening now. We are prepared for tornado season during this outbreak.”
Springs said her agency will likely have to do some “outside of the box” thinking about how to set up shelters for those impacted by a tornado.
“Sheltering people in this new (COVID-19) scenario could mean we have to house people in multiple smaller shelters,” she said, adding her agency will work with local emergency and health officials.
“It could mean partnering with other locations that provide shelters so we can create open spaces. We’ll also set up a health screening process and isolation areas. We’ll have to make sure there are enough tissues, masks, and plastic bags available. We’ll follow social distancing rules, make sure there are 10 or fewer people in a room, and make sure – as we always do – that we have hand-washing stations set up and wellness stations set up.”
The key to handling a tornado amid this pandemic is preparedness, Springs and emergency officials said.
“Think about what your family will need to get by for a couple of weeks,” Springs said, adding that doesn’t mean the public should hoard items. “If you have little ones, do you have enough diapers? What if you have a pet? Do you have enough food for them? There’s no better time than now to be prepared.”
More information about preparing for a tornado, pandemic, or other disaster is available on the following websites: