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ORANGE COUNTY

Midwest has it; SoCal doesn't

May 13, 2008|DANA PARSONS

After I'd lived in California for a while, my friends in the Midwest wanted to know what was different out here. I hated to break it to them, but I didn't find Southern Californians all that different from Midwesterners. Nor did day-to-day life seem that much more expensive, given that money spent on Midwestern winters -- such as on heating bills, heavy clothes, snow tires -- was money kept in the Californian's pocket. Cable TV offered the same shows.

But there was one huge difference. Nobody talked about the weather in Southern California. It was the ever-present factor that needed no discourse. Hearing someone say "Nice day, huh?" is not discussing the weather.

All you East Coast and Midwest transplants know what I'm talking about.

"When's the rain gonna hit?"

"Should we cancel the picnic?"

"Do you think they'll have the streets plowed by Thursday?"

"This heat is sweltering. How long is it supposed to last?"

"The highway is glare ice."

And, of course, the time-honored classic: "It's not the heat, it's the humidity!"

As a Californian for 20 years now, I've nearly forgotten what it's like to have weather on the brain much of the time. But all it takes to bring it back is news reports of tornadoes such as the ones in Oklahoma and Missouri over the weekend, or to a more catastrophic degree, the cyclone that hit Myanmar in Southeast Asia.

Obviously, we have our moments here. Heavy rains in the winter make us fearful of mudslides, and the dry Santa Anas raise the fire alert. But those are infrequent conversations, and the calamity, if it occurs, affects people only in certain areas. In short, the threat isn't widely shared.

Weather disasters in the Midwest unify people in mutual misery. Sound the tornado warning in a city, and everyone runs for cover. Tell people a blizzard is bearing down, and everyone feels vulnerable. You don't have to live in a certain part of town to know you could be in real trouble.

That said, if I were the schmaltzy type, I'd look back somewhat wistfully on a period in 1975 when my hometown of Omaha was hit by a doozy of a blizzard in January and a killer tornado in May.

We still talk about them.

A friend at the Omaha paper and I like to recount how we tried to walk two blocks up the street to bivouac in a hotel on the night the blizzard hit with full force.

No problem, we figured: The hotel was on the same side of the street as the newspaper -- just walk in a straight line on the sidewalk from 14th Street to 16th.

I don't think we got to 15th. The blowing snow rendered us disoriented within seconds. Being smart lads, we retreated to the safety of the paper and waited out the snow.

Four months later, we hunkered down at the paper again, this time as tornado sirens wailed. Almost always, the sirens signaled a near-miss or false alarm.

So, when things quieted down and my editor assigned me and a photographer to ride out to west Omaha and check things out, we came over a hill and saw a sight I'll never forget: cars standing on their bumpers, motel rooms now offering open-air lodging, businesses flattened.

It was the same kind of footage I saw on TV this week from Missouri. And that's the thing: You know it can happen to anyone in tornado territory. Because everyone in Omaha potentially could have been victimized by the twister, it was a disaster shared by them all. Just as the blizzard's aftermath inflicted the same hassles on everyone in town.

I thought only earthquakes could connect all Southern Californians in a similar way, but a native Californian friend says I'm wrong about wildfires -- they bring the same sense of shared dread as do Midwestern disasters.

It'd be foolish to say you miss tornadoes or blizzards. They kill people and make life harder than it already is.

I'm no fool. I don't miss them. I just miss the stories and the undeniable fact that -- at least for a few days in their wake -- we were all friends and neighbors with something to talk about.

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Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons

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