I awoke with a start. The air conditioner beat a steady drone but something accompanied it, almost an echo, higher in pitch, unwavering. Other than a faint greenish glow emitting from the clock radio the room was dark. Light blossomed in the windows, a white glare burning a negative image of the slatted blinds into my retinas. It soundlessly pulsed and flickered, a dot and dash of some secret explosive code. I rolled over to check the time: 4:05. By then the town of Greensburg was gone, and flames engulfed a small white house a quarter mile away.
“What is it?” Lori asked.
“I don’t know.”
She sat up. The air conditioner almost drowned out the sound.
“It’s the siren,” she said.
Of course. Once recognized we could trace its modulation, one long clamant note bleeding away to a short pause and rising again to a scream. Its lack of undulation identified it as the fire whistle.
Light slashed the windows in a rhythmic throb. Across the room the weather radio was silent. I had checked it before going to bed so I knew it was working, but the siren and the lightning together confused me. All evening I’d watched thunderstorms erupt into scarlet crescents advancing across the two counties to the west, a godlike view furnished by Doppler radar and broadband Internet, and the certainty of their arrival, coupled with the uncertainty of their impact, had insinuated within me a jittery, restive presence like a second soul. My dreams had been haunted. I slipped from bed and peered through the blinds.
Lightning ghosted the night into bone-white silhouettes and stark shadows—a ragged line of trees, a grassy field, the wet gravel road leading toward town. As the siren wound to silence I returned to bed, but when I closed my eyes I found myself staring into the west, where beyond the midnight black of night something lurked. A sense of dread fell over me. Lightning played along the edge of a huge wall cloud, and in that glimmering was something larger than I could imagine, a massive blocky form of pure malevolence, faintly seen but mostly felt, utterly alien to the twin funnels that pursue me in tornado dreams. A sonorous rumbling issued from the cloud, followed by an emergent shape. I covered my eyes and fell to my knees.
It was just outside Houston in1996 when I first saw what would forever define my image of life along coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic seaboard. As we headed toward Galveston in search of a kelp gull that had been reported the day before, I noticed specially marked signs falling away in the rear view mirror. “Evacuation Route,” they read. When I asked someone what they would be evacuating from, his reply was curt and judgmental, as if speaking to a moron: hurricane.
For them, hurricanes were not an if but a when. Sometimes once a year, sometimes more, they are a fact of life. While I found the coast sublimely beautiful, I knew I could never live there. Living under an imminent threat seemed the utmost folly.
And now, of course, I find myself in tornado alley, surely a delectable twist of fate. The parallels, however, are few. Hurricanes are assured, but tornadoes are capricious and relatively rare. The chance of being pulverized by a tornado is far less than being struck by lightning. But when the sky turns bruised and sirens rip apart the night, our primal terror of the unknown shreds reason to confetti, and we become no better than our Paleolithic ancestors gaping into a darkness punctuated by the screams of demons.
After Greensburg’s annihilation from something few people had ever heard of before May 5th—a “wedge” tornado, so named for its extreme power, height and shape—residents here were on edge. The skies roiled with cloud masses streaming from the southwest, heavy, ponderous shapes hinting of a menace coming behind.
The air was humid, supersaturated with moisture, the wind gusting through trees like a freight train, stripping young leaves and old branches. But the most worrisome thing was the sense that something was about to happen, an ominous foreboding, made more tangible by the destruction of Greensburg. It was all people talked about, and as they did their eyes clouded over even as they involuntarily lifted to the tumultuous clouded skies.
At times the sky almost cleared, the clouds whitening into luminous patterns melting into the pallid blue so that all color and texture grew indistinct and gauzy. At those times the heat spiked and conversation shifted to violent images of thunderstorms erupting into life. “It’s going to be a long night,” people said.
The nightmare had spawned a deep-seated fear in me, so to burn off the edginess I hauled out the lawnmower and fired it to life. First our yard, then across the street, and finally at the store, I worked until sweat soaked my shirt and I could barely move. Perhaps extreme weariness would be my refuge. All the while the clouds rolled and solidified and darkened. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
Complacency comes easily in tornado season, but one major disaster rocks us back on our heels. That it was another town and not ours leads us to a thankfulness tinged with guilt, and the realization that all that separated us from them was a mere shift in winds. At any time we could be next. It’s the potential we live under.
Though I wanted nothing more than to go home and hide, I told Lori we were going to the Cinco de Mayo festival at the Catholic Church. She was surprised and said so. My excuse was that it would be the first time I was served alcohol in church. Actually I was thinking of Greensburg, of the stark photographs on the news. How it was a community no more.
The threat was there to see, on the horizon, in my dreams. Tonight we would be among friends, while we are still a community, while there is still time, in case the if becomes the now.