Latest from The Spokesman-Review
Friday Quote II: Timothy Egan on tornadoes and “the loud and intellectually corrupt segment of public life dedicated to fact-denial”
In that swath of the American flatland that has been so brutalized of late, a 93-year-old woman gave me a warning. She had lost her house as a little girl, a homestead property of timber-sheltered memories that shattered in a twister’s strike and took to the Oklahoma sky.
She had cautioned me to be wary of springtime — glorious days in a glorious stretch of prairie that can turn deadly on a dime. “Don’t get too far from a shelter.” Yes, yes, I’d heard plenty about hail the size of grapefruit and how the weather might kick up four things that could kill you — wildfire, blizzard, flash flood, tornado.
But it seemed quaint to these urban ears, a “Wizard of Oz” artifact from Dorothy’s pals on the farm. What I learned that afternoon in Tornado Alley is that nothing is more terrifying than a sky of robin’s-egg blue turning bruised and churlish, a moment that transforms trees and telephone poles into missiles.
The spring of 2011 is shaping up as one for all the wrong kind of records. Flooding, twisters, Texas wildfires, deaths by fast-moving air that has its own awful category known too well by millions — the Enhanced Fujita Scale, the worst being EF5, winds 200 m.p.h. or more. In a year when almost 500 Americans have died from tornadoes, and 60 or more twisters touch down in a single day, even the cable weather jockeys look humbled as they stand next to flattened neighborhoods.
Good afternoon, Netizens…
Having watched the news regarding the F4 tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri, and given the number of times I have chased tornadoes through Tornado Alley, my heart is heavy with sorrow for those who died or were injured during this record-breaking multi-cyclonic storm. Unfortunately, storm chasers never truly had an opportunity with this storm as most storm chasers with any brains to back up their nerves of steel would never chase funnel clouds in the dark, which is when the storm reached its peak.
It would be redundant of me to cite Joplin's statistics, as the national news media have already smothered our senses with news overload regarding a city in Missouri some of us may have never seen. Suffice it to say people in Joplin are living in a chainlike web of sorrow and pain tonight, and it is not over by a long shot, as they are currently under a tornado and severe thunderstorm warning once again.
However, it stands to reason there are some lessons which Spokane could learn in the aftermath of such a horrific storm, despite the fact Spokane only rarely has tornadoes, and as far as I can tell, has never seen an F4 storm.
First, do we even have emergency sirens? Granted, we probably do not have enough danger of tornadoes to mandate having workable sirens mounted throughout the city. However, such devices could easily be part of a more generic set of warnings. Perhaps we could even sound the sirens to let the public know of unforeseen hazards, such as train wrecks or other dangerous situations. If nothing else, using city-wide sirens as a storm warning might buy unknowing citizens of pending hazardous weather by encouraging people to turn on their radios and televisions for the latest news updates and thus to take immediate shelter.
Awareness of weather threats should be taught early to our students in the hopes they will always be aware of dangerous weather. I will never forget the day about ten years ago a tornado manifested itself in North Spokane while I was sitting in a former Denny's Restaurant. The funnel appeared to be making a bee line for the restaurant, and to my utter chagrin, most of the restaurant staff and patrons eagerly ran to the windows to get a better look. It was fortuitous that the storm went back aloft, for had it not done so, the statistics could have been terrible. Education and awareness is everything.
Duck and cover is not dead yet. In the Midwest, throughout most of Tornado Alley, students are still taught the old-fashioned “duck and cover” drill, a hallmark of the Cold War Days when we lived in fear of an atomic bomb. In Spokane we only average three or four tornadoes per year, and only a few of them ever achieve even an F2 category. Still, having school children aware of duck and cover might make the difference between life and death should a tornado strike.
These are just a few things, idle speculation on my part, that we could stand to learn from the meteorological depravity that hit Tornado Alley in the last few weeks. Of course, your results and opinions may differ.
A phenomenal warning from Sarah Laskow at Grist: The average number of tornado fatalities in the U.S. each year is 55. Already this year, 481 people have died.
Fifteen states, led by Texas, are looking to overturn the EPA’s finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health. If they fail in court, they plan to stick their fingers in their ears and go “LA LA LA.”
The New York City ban on smoking in parks kicked in, bringing “clean,” “fresh” air to all. The three remaining smokers complained; no one else noticed.
Good morning, Netizens…
Late yesterday and throughout the night last night, parts of Alabama and Mississippi were decimated by a series of violent tornadoes that ranged from an estimated F4 or F5 on the Fujita Scale that hit Tuscaloosa, Huntsville and Birmingham, such as this photo of the tornado that flattened portions of Tuscaloosa late in the day yesterday. This area of the United States is no stranger to tornadoes and severe thunderstorms, but never so many and of such severity in such a short period of time.
A huge storm front, ranging across four states, killed a still-unknown number of people and injuring hundreds of others. It flattened not only homes in its path, it flattened businesses throughout much of the Huntsville area, leaving emergency services and medical service providers ill-equipped to cope with the trees across streets, people trapped in houses and businesses and other injuries.
It is not quite turning daylight now, and with the new day, it is expected the number of dead and injured will rise.
Unfortunately, there is still a forecast model that suggests the severe weather will persist for portions of today.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Good morning, Netizens…
Living in the Pacific Northwest, there are many who wonder at people who, after loading down their vehicles with an imponderable stack of highly-technical equipment, and taking their lives in their hands, go chasing severe storms in other areas of the country. A classic example of a reason why people do such things just struck in parts of North Carolina and other parts of the South where a record-setting number of tornadoes touched down over the weekend.
There was a time, years ago, when I regularly chased tornadoes. It was before the full development of NEXRAD Radar, when storm chasers didn't have hardly any of the modern-day gadgets that modern-day meteorologists routinely possess. We studied the clouds, and when the circumstances were right, we called local authorities notifying them of a potential tornado touchdown; it wasn't perfect but it was what we had. Even today, given the arsenals of electronics and meteorological software storm chasers sometimes miss storms that later generate tornadoes. In some instances storm chasers cause the sirens to blow but no funnel clouds ever form. It is an imperfect science to some degree.
In Sanford, North Carolina, a representative for a flattened Lowe's Hardware store admitted to various members of news agencies that they had heard the sirens blowing in the distance, notifying anyone within its range to take cover immediately and yet it wasn't until customers physically saw the tornado looming across the street before anyone took action. Fortunately, the Lowes store in question had a disaster plan and followed it. Despite the store being more or less flattened around them, no one inside the store was killed.
All the storm chasers in the world would not have made much difference to the folks in the store.
According to several severe weather warning centers, there were at least four storm chasers who had been following the progress of the particular storm front which spawned so many tornadoes in such a short period of time. In fact there were at least two different videos of the storm as it developed, each shot by storm chasers. Still, in other areas, people died, some of whom had no warning at all of impending severe weather.
There is obviously a great deal more education, awareness and advance notification that needs to be done before tornado warning system will work 100% of the time.