Monday, May 09, 2011

Tornado Watch-ing

For a second straight week, Van Wert County survived a tornado warning this week. Sirens blared, half-dressed people ran instinctively to shelter, and all over the region there were people nibbling on fingernails or in all-out panic mode. Tornadoes scare people. I get that, especially in Van Wert County. That November day in 2002 was one of the few days I had my entire family in the basement. I even joined them there for a minute after I saw the high winds suddenly switch the direction they were pushing the trees. But for the most part, if there's a tornado watch, I go out and try to watch.

I've been caught out in many storms, but I've never actually seen a tornado. My wife would love to be a storm chaser and watch these giant funnels. Ironically the day a tornado hit our neighbor's house, our whole family was away. We saw nothing but the aftermath. The one time we had a reserved ringside seat, and we were ten miles away. Figures.

I do have a healthy respect for tornadoes. I know people who were directly involved in the F-4 that rumbled through here almost a decade ago, and suffered great loss. I watched news accounts on the Internet and on television of places like Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Ringgold, Georgia, which were blasted by twisters on Wednesday. For years I've heard the stories of chickens having their feathers stripped away, stalks of corn being driven through tree trunks, and personal items being carried hundreds of miles by the tornadic winds. The destructive power boggles the mind.

When I was a child growing up in Indiana, I had a few brushes with tornadoes, or at least the effects of tornadoes -- both physical and emotional. One storm tore through a town of a couple hundred people, ripping the roof off the gymnasium of the old school building. I still remember riding in the car past the permanently retracted roof, and further down the path of the tornado, staring at trees that were freshly bent at a 45 degree angle. Those trees continued to lean for years afterward.

I also remember the panic that overtook my aunt when I was very small. The story was always that a tornado headed at you sounded like a freight train. We were discussing that during a particularly bad storm back in the 60s. We had gathered at my grandmother's house because she had a basement and we did not. My aunt was particularly nervous that night, having heard that tornadoes sound like freight trains and hearing the mighty winds blowing outside. Suddenly, she heard that sound that made her scream, certain that destruction was seconds away. What was the sound? A freight train sound? Sort of. It was a train whistle. I remember she almost had to be pulled off the ceiling and reminded that tornadoes don't have train whistles!

People today will, at times, become unnecessarily panicked over the threat of a tornado. Some of that panic can be avoided with a little education. A little study of twisters can tell you what sorts of things to expect when a storm threatens. You should know that a tornado watch just means that the conditions could allow tornadoes to form and a warning means there is a rotating storm somewhere. Information during a storm also can reassure a person when it isn't necessary to grab Toto and run to the storm cellar with Auntie Em. With the Internet, weather radios, and even television, it is possible to find out most everything that is happening as it happens.

But perhaps the greatest education one needs is basic geography. I'm continually amused by people who cannot seem to grasp that a storm traveling east from, say, Willshire, is not endangering Grover Hill or Scott. Now I could chalk it up to people not being able to read a map or knowing which direction is east, or it could be that storm panic has set in and no amount of information can penetrate the brain until a meteorologist shows up at the front door giving the All Clear signal.

So my tornado season advice is simple: (1) Respect storms, but don't let your mind glaze over in panic, (2) Gather information from as many reliable sources as possible, (3) Learn the basic geography of places in the region, especially to the south and west, and (4) If you hear a train whistle, it's just a train.

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