April in the South is peak tornado season. Yesterday, killer storms swept through Alabama killing dozens, destroying lives and wiping out entire communities.
It’s mid-April. The big forsythia I planted in my back yard is finally blooming. Jonquils have pushed up through the chilly soil.
Spring comes quietly to the Northwest. In other parts of the country it is the prettiest time of the year, but there is a darker side to the season.
If you’ve ever spent a spring or summer in the central and southern states, the region known as the Tornado Belt, you’ve probably experienced the dramatic clash of cold air sweeping down from the north and warm, moist air rising up from the Gulf of Mexico.
You’ve been in tornado country.
I grew up in the South and the first thing one learns about tornadoes is that they aren’t a single sensory experience. They overwhelm, assaulting from every direction.
First, you can see bad weather coming. The sky lowers. Dark clouds build overhead and everything takes on a greenish cast. The breeze disappears and the tallest trees are still. Even the birds fall silent.
Flickering television screens show anxious forecasters pointing to ominous radar images and tracing the path of the storm.
You can feel the storm before it arrives. The air hangs over you, heavy and oppressive. The humidity is smothering.
Tornados have a strange perfume. They are scented with ozone, a trace of flowering shrubs and other odors trapped in the wind. Tornadoes smell like the basement, the bathroom or the closet. Wherever you’ve run for shelter.
A tornado has a voice. The sound begins with the sudden, piercing wail of sirens that send a warning across town. It’s a terrifying, nerve-shattering sound, loud enough to wake you; to get your attention and make you look up from your desk at work; to be heard over the car radio or the television in the den. Loud enough to make you move. Fast.
Twisters bring the sound of rain lashing against the roof; wind whipping through the leaves, stripping them from the branches. They bring the sharp stinging sound of pine needles striking like javelins. The thudding of your pulse as you gather up the children, snatching blankets and teddy bears and sippy cups of juice to see you through the wait.
They are a whirlwind of crashing, banging and shattering sounds.
Survivors always say that the tornado, when it arrives, sounds like a freight train passing overheard.
Tornados taste like fear.
The thing about tornadoes is that, like so many of the things that scare us the most, they are random. They strike, skip, strike and skip again. There’s no way to predict where they will land or who will be in harm’s way.
And when they swarm, you can’t fight them. You can only hide and hope for the best.
It’s easy to find fault with the place where you live. And Spokane is no exception. Everyone has his or her own list of what would make this a better place to be.
But we should be grateful for at least one thing. Springtime in this part of the country may be slow to arrive, but it is relatively meek when it gets here. We don’t have to search the sky with anxious eyes, or listen for the sound of danger. We can go to sleep at night without worrying that the roof will blow away and trees will be uprooted.
Sure, storms come. And then they pass. At best, the grass is a little greener. At worst the creek is a little higher.
But our homes, the places that shelter us, are still standing.
And when the sun comes up, we’re still here.
This essay was adapted from an earlier column. Cheryl-Anne Millsap's essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com