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Severe Storms Not Unusual For Spring, COVID-19 Brings Additional Challenges For Recovery

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Heavy storms featuring high wind speeds swept through Arkansas this past weekend, killing one person and leaving thousands without power.

According to Dennis Cavanaugh, Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Little Rock, the storms that hit the state were a part of  the second of two storms systems that hit the southern part of the country this weekend, with the first wave of storms mainly hitting Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

"The second round of thunderstorms however, that developed in eastern Oklahoma and then moved into western Arkansas [Sunday] evening and then continued southeast and then moved across much of southern Arkansas through the evening hours. And it left a big swath of pretty heavy wind damage, pretty consistent with 60-80 miles per hour winds, knocking down trees and power lines," Cavanaugh said.

Cavanaugh says the storms system caused widespread wind damage across the state and was the majority of the reported damage. Those wind speeds can cause just as much damage as a weak tornado.

"The 60-80 miles per hour winds that’s consistent with an EF0 tornado. So it’d be like the strength of an EF0 tornado but over a widespread area," Cavanaugh said.

According to Entergy Arkansas’s outage map, over 90 thousand Arkansans are still without power, with a majority of affected customers located in the southern half of the state.

Arkansas’s current weather pattern of temperatures gradually increasing, only to be followed by a cold front and at times severe storms, is the norm for spring, according to Cavanaugh.

"During the spring, we still get a lot of those fronts moving through and those fronts are what provide a lot of the energy to make thunderstorms severe during the spring months. It’s why we have most of our severe storms in the spring here in Arkansas," Cavanaugh said. "Once you get into the summer, those fronts stay north and so we still get thunderstorms, but they’re not usually as bad or as organized as the ones we get in the spring."

The main dangers from these systems are the damaging winds and the possibility of tornadoes. However, an additional challenge to current storm recovery is the presence of COVID-19. Cavanaugh says emergency managers in Arkansas have developed plans how to provide shelters for those whose homes suffered damage, including building separate shelters for people who display coronavirus symptoms.

"It’s not like a hotel room, we’re talking about a cot right, and just a place to store your stuff maybe. But if people need those temporary shelters, that’s at least what the emergency managers in Arkansas have been planning for," Cavanaugh said.

Another challenge that the coronavirus brings for storm responders is trying to maintain proper social distancing while clearing possible debris.

"You’re going to have lots of trees down everywhere, so if you have lots of guys working chainsaws or a chainsaw crew, you’d want them to sort of space apart form one another and that can be difficult sometimes because if there’s a bunch of trees down, it’s hard to separate from one another if you’re part of a chainsaw crew," Cavanaugh said.

In order to prepare for the any future storms, Cavanaugh recommends putting together an emergency kit that would last around 6-8 hours that includes helmets, extra shoes, a weather radio and other materials. Though some items in grocery stores such as paper towels and sanitary wipes remain scarce, Cavanaugh doesn’t believe items needed for an emergency weather kit would be hard to locate.

"A lot of what you can prepare for in your kit right now is freely available. You just have to go out and get it," Cavanaugh said. He also recommends having at least one way to receive weather warnings such as a weather radio.

"Having some way to get weather information, whether it be an app or a reverse 911 system through your county, you want to know when dangerous storms are approaching and whether they are a tornado threat or not," Cavanaugh said.

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