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Life in Tornado Alley: You watch the sky, and hope

May 20, 2013|By Paul Whitefield
  • Massive tornado rakes Moore, Okla., on Monday.
Massive tornado rakes Moore, Okla., on Monday. (Alonzo Adams / Associated…)

Tornado Alley. It’s where I used to call home. And watching the massive twister rip through Moore, Okla., on Monday brought back a flood of memories.

I’m a Californian now, but I spent my childhood and young adult years in the Midwest: Texas and Nebraska mostly. So do I know about tornadoes? Of course. You don’t grow up in Tornado Alley and not know tornadoes.

Many people here tell me they prefer our relatively rare earthquakes to the Midwest’s frequent storms. But not me. Yes, as we saw Monday, tornadoes can be deadly. But at least with twisters, you usually have some warning.

WATCH: 4 videos of Oklahoma tornado

Although I confess, sometimes the warnings don’t take. I remember a family dinner one Sunday in Nebraska. Yes, it was raining. Yes, the clouds were dark. Yes, it was windy. But we’d seen worse. So when the siren sounded, we assumed it was lightning striking a pole and setting it off, not a real tornado. We kept eating. Not until we turned on the TV while clearing the dishes did we learn that a twister had touched down near the airport.

But you usually don’t need a siren to tell you when things are turning bad. When spring comes, you watch the sky, and you learn the signs.

First, bad storms have a certain look: Ominous, dark clouds, often with an odd greenish tint, which can indicate hail. Then, a sudden temperature drop -- it can be near 100 degrees and sweltering one minute, almost cold the next. And most chilling of all, a stillness that’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced: From strong winds whipping the trees to a clammy calm in seconds. If you weren’t afraid before, you are then.

Once, I stood in an open field behind my apartment in Omaha in just such conditions and watched a rotating cloud pass directly overhead -- a twister in the making. Why no tornado? Beats me -- and it  probably stumps scientists too.

Within a year, though, Omaha was devastated by an F4 storm; I could see it from afar as I drove home, the afternoon sky black as night. It narrowly missed my brother’s house. And yes, his wife reported when she came out of their basement, shaken but safe, it did sound like a freight train. 

There were other close calls. Like the night as a young boy in Texas that Mom and Dad roused us from our beds in our trailer home; we drove to a nearby gas station that had a cement wall and some sort of roof to shelter the car. When the wind died after a few minutes, we went back -- but our trailer was now on its side. I remember my brother’s crushed bike being stuck into the side when the trailer was righted.

And another night -- now living in a different trailer in a different town in Texas -- huddled in a storm cellar, two grown men struggling to hold the doors shut against the howling wind.

I recall an evening with my family at a drive-in movie, and in the distance, as lightning flashed, getting brief glimpses of three or four funnel clouds on the horizon. And yes, we stayed for the end of the movie!

It’s been many, many years since I lived in Tornado Alley. But seeing the Oklahoma twister, I pictured those poor folks huddled in their homes, or their schools, or even their cars. I hoped that perhaps the local building codes called for storm cellars, or basements, or some place that offered protection. Because when a big tornado is bearing down on you, the bathtub isn’t much protection.

It will be a hard night in Moore, followed by many hard days and weeks. And unfortunately, if I know Tornado Alley, it will be another town’s turn soon.

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