How many times I studied the doppler radar image on the Internet I couldn’t say. Many, many times. Too many, to be honest. Like others who voiced their reservations on Facebook, the unfolding cataclysmic weather front was impossible to disregard, in equal measures fascinating and terrifying, riveting us to our seats when there were better things to do, like preparing for the unthinkable.
And yet there was no more unthinkable. The unthinkable had been manifest in all its gruesome authority, almost in live-time from multiple sources both amateur and professional. Reading was gone, an entire town, and if we saw shades of Greensburg in its destruction it was no more than the opening act for what would follow: Joplin and the deadliest tornado since 1950.
And it didn’t end there. That morning the National Weather Service warned that atmospheric conditions were ripe for a classic tornadic outbreak to sweep the state. After what had happened in Alabama in April, when a similar outbreak killed almost 300 people, the words were hammer blows to our complacency. I’d never read a more ominous forecast. The only thing missing was an admonition to pray.
But prayers had done little for the people in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Reading, Joplin or all the other nameless places ignored by the media in favor of larger apocalyptic stories. And anyway I had no prayers to offer up. All I had was deepening dread that we would be split up, Lori at work and me at home. When she left that afternoon I kissed her goodbye and told her to keep her head down. And then I started digging.
For most residents of the Great Plains, tornadoes are a variable state of mind. Except during the spring and summer—prime tornado season—they rarely breach our consciousness. And even then their relevance can best be compared to an alarm clock whose sole purpose is to wake the sleeping.
At other times, when sirens blare and skies blacken to a greenish sheen, they're all we think of.
This mindset varies depending on one’s personal experience with tornadic activity. Several friends assure me that they never worry about tornadoes, don’t own weather radios, never follow weather reports and ignore tornado sirens, but they’re something of an anomaly. After querying dozens of Kansans during the past decade, I’ve come to the conclusion that the average resident holds a healthy respect for tornadoes but doesn’t consider them much of a threat. Only a few have seen funnel clouds much less a full-blown tornado.
Cheryl Unruh, a lifelong Kansan and author of Flyover People: Life on the Ground in a Rectangular State, was always warily ambivalent. Statistically, the odds of being killed in a vehicle are astronomically better than being killed in a tornado, and that doesn’t stop anyone from driving. She pays attention to weather alerts and tracks storms with a meteorologist’s precision but otherwise never gave them much thought until having to take shelter during the Arkansas breakout, a terrifying experience made worst by the rolling topography. Because of the hills, she said, “there’s no sense of what’s coming at you. I want to see the sky. I want to know what’s out there.”
And that was just a taste of what was to come. The tornado that took out Reading skirted her town of Emporia and others passed perilously close on their way to Joplin. The sheer scale of the destruction and the numbers of the dead have shaken her. “Tornadoes aren’t joking this year,” she said. “They’re on a killing spree. When the tornado warnings started popping up over the Kansas map this past week, I felt a little less confident of the odds and a little more uneasy.”
Carol Yoho, a Topeka resident whose home was destroyed in 1966, views tornadoes through a survivor’s eyes. “Living through, and then walking in the aftermath with nothing for blocks held together well enough to recognize it by its shape, color, or texture, then having to count houses from the corner of the street to figure out which tangled mess was my home, has given me pause to stop and pay attention to any sort of storm watch or weather warning—especially tornado sirens,” she said. “Mother Nature cannot be ignored.”
As an outsider who has seen the destructive power of tornadoes (one in Thornton, Colo., missed our home by six houses), mine is an obsessive fear bordering on neurosis. During most weather alerts I’m cautious and informed if not a little queasy. I track storms on the Internet and, when occasion dictates, have important items close at hand to grab on the way downstairs. What was coming our way, forecasters promised, was something out of our worst nightmares. The warning was like a movie trailer for the book of Revelation. The four horsemen were unleashed. The end was coming.
Strangely, any fear I might have had was replaced by a methodical practicality based on a worst-case scenario. My first premise was that the house would be scraped from its foundation, that broken water pipes would soak everything not protected. Whatever I took downstairs had to be sealed, whether in garbage bags or some kind of storage container.
After enlarging our area of refuge, I added two large plastic tubs and began filling them with camera equipment, backup hard drives, laptops, charging cords and miscellaneous smaller items such as extra batteries, a headlamp and a pistol. Small things, essential things.
I was thinking of the people of Reading or Joplin who emerged from their underground shelters to find everything splintered beyond recognition, their only possessions whatever they managed to hoard. I added the Kindle and the iPod, a small bottle of bourbon, a sack of medications. I added a change of clothing and a waterproof jacket, sealed the container and placed my Tilley hat on top.
Say it’s all gone and this is all we have to rebuild our lives, I thought. Is it enough?
A rolling grumble of thunder was my answer.
(To be continued)