As Americans marked Easter Sunday amid the challenges of a pandemic, the South faced a new menace that could upend lives: severe weather, including possibly fierce tornadoes.
A string of severe storms was likely from Louisiana through the Tennessee Valley, the National Weather Service said, and more than 4.5 million people could be at risk. Birmingham, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi, were particularly vulnerable, the Storm Prediction Center said.
The storms were expected to last through Sunday night and move through the mid-Atlantic and parts of the Northeast and the Eastern Seaboard into Monday, Accuweather said.
The National Weather Service reported one large tornado in Monroe, Louisiana, midmorning, according to the Weather Channel, and said damage has been reported in parts of the city.
The National Weather Service office in Jackson told residents to brace for the possibility of relentless tornadoes with wind gusts up to 70 mph and tennis ball-size hail through Sunday evening.
“This could be one of our bigger events we’ve had in a long time around here. Take this seriously,” weather service forecaster Gary Goggins said in a public briefing broadcast on Facebook from the agency’s Birmingham-area office.
The severe weather threat included tornadoes, widespread damaging winds, large hail and flooding rain, the Weather Channel warned, and stretched from Texas to parts of the East Coast from Sunday into Monday morning.
‘Take this seriously’: Southeast may see severe storms and tornadoes on Easter Sunday
Adding to the unprecedented nature of the day: the question of whether or not to open community storm shelters. The decision is usually made at the county or local level. But because federal and state public health officials are mandating people stay at home and avoid gathering in groups larger than 10, the equation is complicated.
In a video message posted on the Alexander City, Alabama, Facebook page, Mayor Thomas Spraggins said Saturday that people needed to find a safe place on their own since public buildings wouldn’t be open as shelters because of the pandemic. “I’ll be praying for everyone to have a safe and happy Easter,” he said.
But a statement from the city’s police department said shelters would be opened after all. Temperature checks would be performed and gloves and masks were being provided to anyone entering.
The initial decision against opening shelters was at odds with a message from Gov. Kay Ivey.
Tornado shelters in a pandemic: Social distancing or tornado shelter… Which takes precedence?
“Both the National Weather Service and the State Public Health Department remind Alabamians that the use of shelters and other resources take precedent, should the need arise,” Ivey said in a statement Saturday.
Ahead of tomorrow’s potential severe weather outbreak, prepare to respond as you normally would even during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Storm shelters will be open, but you’re encouraged to wear a mask, use hand sanitizer and practice social distancing to the best of your ability. pic.twitter.com/9E3f7ywG9c
— msema (@MSEMA) April 11, 2020
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said in a tweet Saturday that shelters would be open and encouraged residents to wear masks, use hand sanitizer and stay 6 feet apart.
If tornado shelters aren’t open, experts advise residents to take cover in their houses as best they can.
‘Easter of solitude’: Christians across the world mark Easter Sunday amid the coronavirus
Residents should take seek protection in bathrooms with no exterior walls, stairwells or a basement, AccuWeather meteorologist and emergency preparedness specialist Becky DePodwin said.
The “main point is to put as many walls between you and the exterior walls,” she said.
Contributing: Doug Stanglin, Doyle Rice, USA TODAY; the Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Severe weather, tornadoes: 4.5 million people at risk on Easter Sunday