Life in Tornado Alley

AP Photo/Eagle-Democrat

In the aftermath of this week’s tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, I’ve heard an odd tidbit of information: That a set of twins were sitting on their front porch watching the storm before they had to run inside for cover as the funnel cloud roared closer to them. I have no doubt this story was propelled into the national news because so many people responded with confused amazement. But I didn’t find it at all surprising that people were out on their porch. I’d watched my own dad ride out the sorts of massive storm systems that produce tornadoes from a patio chair in the yard. On Monday night the same storms that hit Oklahoma passed through Arkansas, where I’m currently reporting a different article and am staying with my mother in the town I grew up in. I spent the better part of them on my porch with her two big black labs, trying to quiet the dogs down. These storms come often and everyone tells you to take cover in the most structurally sound part of your house; what they don’t tell you is that’s the opposite of what you want to do, when the air becomes Ozone and electric, when lightning strikes stop being jagged streaks and instead brighten up the whole sky at once with a grey-red sort of luminescence, when you hear thunder at the exact same time and it resonates long after in a rolling peel and you know the storm is right on top of you, when the alternating rain hammers and then stops, and the wind howls and gets still in unpredictable bursts, when the eerie stillness becomes a sound itself. The earth alive and afire. I didn’t feel scared so much as nostalgic. I’d missed these storms in the nearly 15 years I’ve been on the East Coast. Those twins got quite a show.

Until, of course, it gets scary. How do you know that will happen? No one has quite figured it out yet. Tornado Watches, the meteorology term for “Hey, watch out a bad storm might come,” is akin to saying “It is a spring day,” in Tornado Alley, which sits, of course, right over Oklahoma. It doesn’t register as danger, really—just another rotation around the sun. In the Ozarks of northern Arkansas, we get fewer tornadoes, but ‘fewer’ is still plenty. Bad weather brings a little map to the bottom right corner of the TV screen on local networks, and when I was growing up the piece of map representing each county would change from yellow to red to signal a change from a Tornado Watch to a Warning, the term for, “Hey, a Tornado is probably going to happen.” Technically, you’re supposed to take cover, but most still wait for more specificity. The Warnings are issued for huge swaths of land, and span hours. Usually, the storms just get a little worse. If I was home, I’d grab my little white dog, Puppy, and a golf club to kill snakes with in case I had to crawl into the tiny, dirty space beneath my house. I was lucky enough to have a foundation. If you’ve ever been in a mobile home during a storm, and felt it sway and bend, you know what kind of luck those poor souls are going to have.  And I’ve yet to see a structure that could withstand a two-mile-wide EF5 tornado like the one that hit Moore.

We don’t have a basement, because the water table is too high on our land to build one. It’s a common problem here and along with the shifty red clay in the soil, the land here makes basements expensive to construct. Building anything is expensive and people are poor: Hence the double-wides posing as bungalows everywhere. There are special storm shelters we could buy, white fiberglass structures that look like igloos, but anyone who wants to donate the $7,000 they can cost is welcome to criticize people for not owning one. Everyone knows which neighbors have basements or cellars. The first tornado I remember hit nearby when I was almost four. Mom says I am too young to remember, but I swear I can recall being pelted by the golf-ball-sized hail as we ran to our neighbor’s cellar. I remember Mr. Carl’s broad, open face and the smell of the snickerdoodles he brought, and how we spent the night making shadow puppets with the camping lamp in the damp, muddy room.

Why didn’t those kids stay home from school? If you canceled school every day there might be a tornado there would never be school. If they evacuated, where were they going to go? A Tornado Emergency is announced when funnel clouds have already touched down, and their paths are unpredictable. They travel fast. Plus, have you seen what tornadoes do to cars? Better to stay inside. In school, we had tornado drills regularly, lining up against the cinder block hallway wall and bending down on our knees, holding our heads beneath our hands, keeping our backs broad. Teachers said our backs would work together, like a scaffolding, to hold up a heavy weight if the roof fell. Our eight-year-old brains contemplated our eight-year-old backs and thought, “Yeah, ok.” It’s hard to think of children in a school, scared, as the earth tore itself up around them. They would have felt that terror anywhere, and the destruction could have found them at home just as easily. The necessary construction of safe rooms is a decades-long project, but even those won’t be damage-proof in the worst storms.

It’s not like Tornado Alley is the lone spot to witness natural disasters. Hurricanes apparently now feel free to wreak havoc along the entire East Coast. Farther west, homes are either burning or being swallowed by the ground. In Minnesota this month, a tsunami of ice decided to move from its spot on the lake and run up onto some decks. Tornado Alley itself might be expanding into a highway that covers the South and Midwest. Might as well live where you live.

Which was what my colleague, Abby, was getting at in her piece on the tornado. You only have so much control over destructive forces. Sometimes you have none. Tornadoes alight anywhere and they follow their own course. It’s just air taking new form. Most of the time, you can bet they won’t be two-miles across and hang around for the better part of an hour. Increasingly, though, it feels like they do.

An EF4 tornado hit my mom’s house, during the Super Tuesday primaries on February 5, 2008. It was about a mile-wide, and stayed on the ground for two hours. It killed fewer people, only three in my town, but there were fewer here to hit. (My aunt and uncle got in their truck and tried to outrun it. I got mad at them when I heard. “That’s how hillbillies die!” I said.) It did a lot of damage. My mom’s house, which my dad built in 1994, was damaged enough that she couldn’t live in it for six months. A house right beside her was leveled; down the road, houses remained untouched. The destruction was selective even inside the house. The windows were blown out and the roof was gone, but her coffee table had only slid into the next room, with all the remote controls and magazines on it undisturbed. My old, poor white dog, Puppy, was found the next day, bedraggled and terrified, under the section of roof that had fallen into my mom’s bedroom. Mom wasn’t home, but the experience changed the way she views these storms. Before, she said, you knew it might happen to you. Tornadoes have to hit somewhere. Then, when one does, you know it can.

In addition to the seemingly countless storms that have hit across the country in the past five years, a few more tornadoes have hit my county since the 2008 one, including one this April. It was small, but it destroyed a church in a village on the mountain north of town. It did damage to the homes of some family friends, one of whom told me a few weeks ago, “I’m about sick of these tornadoes.” On Facebook this Monday, as the storms came toward Arkansas, my wall was full of people saying, “Oh please, not again!” Yell it to the sky.

The people in Moore must have thought that; they’ve been hit before, and probably will be again. Few people are going to say with certainty that these storms are happening with more frequency, caused by global warning. Many will point to the destructive behemoths that hit a hundred years ago, and they will be right. But is there any room for a Farmer’s Almanac, know-it-in-your-bones case that these terrible tornadoes hit more and more often, and are worse and worse to bear? I would make it. I’m about sick of these tornadoes, too.

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