A Close Encounter With A Tornado


I had intended on blog about journeying west, one of my favorite subjects, but Mother Nature interfered. My house – with me in it – narrowly missed a hit by a tornado Wednesday.   My neighbors weren’t so lucky. More than 50 homes within two blocks of me sustained a direct hit and were heavily damaged or destroyed. 

We get a lot of tornado warnings in the Memphis area. They sweep across Oklahoma and through Arkansas and then move through Tennessee. More often than not, they skip over us and hit Jackson, a city seventy miles down the road.  In the past ten years we’ve had tons of warnings but only one bad tornado.

I’ve become rather blase about the watches and warnings. We average one a month or so, and usually they don’t materialize. And I’ve always been a fatalist. If one really wants to get me, it will.

So usually I pay little attention. I don’t get in a closet or bathroom (my house doesn’t have a basement and there’s very little space without lots of glass). I really don’t want to get in the only windowless hallway where the entire top story could fall on me. So I usually ignore the warnings.

This one came suddenly. I was happily working on the last chapter of my book when I suddenly heard the wailing of sirens. I immediately turned on the television to learn that a tornado was coming toward me.  In fact, directly at me. The station has a weather radar unit just blocks from my house,  and through its technology you could see the storm approaching.  In less than five minutes, according to the television.

No immediate panic. I’d heard these warnings before. But still . . .

First things first: turn off the computer and unplug it.

Second: gather up the dogs, all three of them.

Three. Put on shoes.

Four. Sit down in front of the television and keep posted as to what exactly was going on.

I got to number three when my power went out. It was only four thirty in the afternoon, but everything went completely black. It was as if it was the darkest night ever. Having suffered through a two-day power outage just four weeks earlier as a result of another strong storm, I had a large number (I’ve never been known to do anything half-way) of battery-powered lanterns within reach. I found a handy one. Then I made a mistake and looked outside.


My giant Crape-myrtles were bent to the ground and debris was flying everywhere. The wind was howling, and torrents of rain were going sideways. Tornado sirens were blaring so loud you could still hear them through the storm.


Despite my misgivings as to the safety of my hallway, I headed for the middle of the house. I didn’t have to drag the dogs with me. They weren’t going to get more than one inch away from me. Then five minutes of pure terror. Thunder roared, the wind howled, and the house shook. After what seemed like a lifetime, the skies lightened.  It was still raining heavily, but the roaring winds had moved on.

Other sirens wailed. Fire trucks. Ambulances. Police cars. I looked outside. Several trees and large branches were strewn over yards. Parts of fences were gone. My yard was full of branches and debris..

My power was still out.  That meant my phones as well.  As usual, my cell phone wasn’t charged. I finally found a portable FM radio and turned on a news station. A tornado with 90-to-100 winds had touched down a block and a half away and wreaked havoc along a five mile path. It damaged a number of homes in my subdivision and from there carved a five mile path of destruction. One wall of a nearby (very)department store was caved in. The front of my bank was blown out. Cars were lifted and tossed from a nearby dealership. Car windows were smashed by winds as motorists tried to reach cover.

Miraculously, no one was killed. There were minor injuries but no major ones, but the damage ran in  many millions of dollars.   Traffic lights were gone.   A gas pump fell on a car.   Miraculously again, there was no fire.

My power came back on three hours later, but I wasn’t completely aware of the heavydamage until the next morning when half of my neighborhood was blocked off by the police to prvent looting.   Large trees had fallen across the road and onto houses. Signs were knocked down.   Items from the department store cluttered the nearby country club course.    Parts of the neighborhood looked like battlegrounds.

I was lucky. My yard was a mess, but no real damage. I know one thing, though. I won’t take a tornado warning lightly again. It came altogether too close.

But my experience set my mind whirling, an affliction of writers.  I was partially protected by strong walls. How would it feel to have no such protection? To have nothing but the canvas of a tent or covered wagon? I went searching among my many diaries of the men and women who traveled west between 1845 to 1870.   They are my heroes and heroines.

I found one great account in “Life On the Plains And At The Diggings” by Alonzo Delano. Alonzo was a merchant who went west for his health rather than riches, and his account of crossing the country is often humorous. Here is his account of a storm May 24,1845 in Kansas.

“The weather was still very cold and uncomfortable . . . the wind blew a gale, and about four o’clock it began to rain again, and we encamped. Our tents were pitched on low ground. But the rain came constantly in torrents, the spray beat into our tents as it never had done before while the cold, chilling wind blew a hurricane without, and promised us no very comfortable night.

“The rain poured, the wind still blew a hurricane, and a corner of the tent was flapping `like mad’ It was a worse night than that on which Tam O’Shanter outran the witches, and it did seem as if `Wee Cutty Sark’ was cutting higher antics than usual. King Lear, in the height of his madness, would have been troubled to have got his mouth open to vent his spleen on such a night.”

Ah. . . I do love these accounts.

And now a question for you. What is the most frightening weather you’ve experienced?


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24 thoughts on “A Close Encounter With A Tornado”

  1. wow Pat, I know that had to be a very scarey thing!

    The thing about weather is that you can’t do anything about it! You just have to prepare the best you can and hope for the best!

    The most frightening weather Ive ever experienced was Hurricane Opal-it really tore up my town when it came through Alabama! It came through in 1996-October, I think-but am not positive. It was awful-it did damage to our house as well as my neighbors’ homes.

    My husband’s parents had just redone their upstairs and a huge tree crashed right through the roof and tore up alot of stuff.

    We were without power for a whole week and that was just awful!

    I’ve never actually seen a tornado-we do get a few here occasionally-but not very often and not as bad as the ones that go through the midwest.

    Happy to hear you and your dogs made it through unharmed!

  2. I’ve never been in a tornado (Thank God!) but I’ve been close. We had a funnel cloud go by a few years ago and it was terrifying, just because of what it could become. Baseball size hail I’m more used to and freezing rain, which I hate!

    Glad your safe! Sounds extremely scary!

  3. Wow, glad you and your dogs are fine!

    The worst weather I have experienced spanned days. It was the blizzard of ’77. Nothing as scary and unpredictable as a tornado which do happen in my area but usually not to close. The most I’ve experienced from a tornado was a few downed trees about 300 ft. from my house. But with the blizzard, the snow just kept coming. I was a young child at the time and I can remember when the snow finally stopped falling we opened my second story bedroom window, grabbed our sleds and out the window we went! It took 2 weeks for the schools to open again. Still after all that time it was like walking through tunnels to get to school. The snow was stacked as high as the traffic lights so when on the sidewalks, you couldn’t see anything but paths leading up the sidewalk and to each house.

  4. Yikes…tornadoes are really scary. My close encounter with a tornado was back in March, 1998 when I was travelling north on the Natchez Trace in Mississippi. As I was nearing Tupelo, MS, I heard tornado warnings on the radio for various counties. Now, a traveller from a different state would not necessarily know the county names and whether or not he or she was in danger. All I knew was the weather where I was looked bad and getting worse so I got off the Trace in Tupelo and decided to have a bit to eat in a local restaurant and let the weather blow over. When I left the restaurant a while later and got back on the Trace, it was rainy, very muggy and still with a low hanging fog over the road. Branches were all over the place, and it was difficult to navigate. I continued on with my trip east to Decatur, AL. The road was dark and it was still raining, making for a slow trip. It wasn’t until I stopped for the night in Decatur and watched the news that I found out my route was taking me right into the path of a tornado that was travelling NW to SE across northern MS to mid-AL. The tornado did a lot of damage to Birmingham, killing a couple of people. If I hadn’t stopped in Tupelo, I would have been right in the middle of it with no cover and no place to go.

  5. Karen. . .I think one of the scariest things ever is driving in that kind of weather, particularly on a lonely stretch of road. I usually love driving, but I hate driving in the rain and usually head for cover.

    Kim. . . Can’t imagine stepping out of a second floor window with a sled. Didn’t you sink?

    Melissa. . . I would think a hurrican far worse than a tornado because it lasts so much longer. I keep thinking I would like to move to the coast but the thought of hurricanes deters me.

  6. Pat,

    You must have been scared to death. I live in TN also, in the Crossville area and we have had several tornados but I was only close enough to hear it and see it.

    Also I was in the blizzard of 1993. It was horrible also. Glad to hear that you are okay

    Walk in peace and harmony,


  7. Weather can be very frightening mostly I think because we have no control over it. All we can do is hold on and pray. I have never been in a tornado but have been near enough to hear and see it. That was close enough. Large hail on a metal building sounds horrible. Living in Nebraska, we have our fair share of all kinds of weather. Have lived through many blizzards and have even been caught in the car in a couple that were very scary. As a small child, we lived in a basement home which during the worst year I remember we often tunneled out of the door to daylight. My father often delivered fuel to farmers and the drifts were higher than him standing on top of the cab of his truck. I just remember the fun of sledding. One blizzard that caught my mother, an aunt, my husband, my sister, my son and I out and about came up with no warning on a late March day. As we left home the sun was shinging and we wore lightweight coats. thankgoodness we had heavy ones along for all because 30 minutes after leaving home we heard on the radio that they were letting schools out in our hometowns. We left immediately for home and had to push the car out of a snowdrift many times befor a neighbor took us the rest of the way by tractor. The worst part was not being able to let anyone know that we were okay. They were looking along a different route for us for two days while we were safe at our home.
    I’m thankful that you and your dogs are okay and will pray for those not so lucky.

  8. Pat, this is a great post! I grew up in tornado alley, not all that far north of you in So. Illinois. Storms always scared me, but it was fear by association – my grandmother lived through the 1925 tornado that cut through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana before it finally dissipated. Her terror translated well to this impressionable little girl. I’m better now, but those sirens can still get my heart rate up.

  9. Pat, LOL nope, it was wet heavy snow, the kind that is perfect for snowmen and snowballs; it was very well packed down just by the weight of all of it. We made a pretty awesome snowfort that year. 🙂

  10. Oh Pat, I was terrified just reading this first-hand account of yours. Praise God you and your pups are safe and injuries were minimal in your town. Whew.

    Whenever I need a tornado in a wip, I’ll be sure to re-read this post!

    Weather is very temperate where I live, but we did have a winter of 35 inches of rain a few years ago, lost a tree, and our in-ground spa got pushed out and destroyed.

    And of course we giantly felt the 1994 Northridge earthquake (40 miles away) but the shaking caused no damage.

    I can’t even imagine suffering through monster weather in a covered wagon.

    Thanks for the great account. I’m so glad you and yours are safe! oxoxox

  11. Hi Pat, What an experience! I’m so glad you and the dogs are safe. Those five minutes must have lasted an eternity.

    Do earthquakes count as weather? I was raised in the San Fernando Valley and have vivid memories of the Sylmar quake. We had to evacuate because of the threat of a dam breaking. In the 1990s, I lived a stone’s throw from the San Andreas fault. We were there about eight years, but “The Big One” didn’t hit.

    Weatherwise, my scariest moment happened at Six Flags America in Maryland, just outside the Capitol Beltway. No tornado, but the air changed completely and the sky went greenish. The park closed because of the storm. I had one of those “it could really happen” moments.

    Thanks for sharing the details. I don’t know which is scarier, a tornado or a hurricane.

  12. Hi Pat,

    I grew in the tornado belt in So. Illinois — not very far from Memphis and I remember the frightening storms very well. I remember the sky getting green. Do you remember this?

    Thanks for the informative blog.

  13. Wow, I have never had to deal with weather like that. I have been through blizzards… and also one Hurricane during a cruise. Boy did that boat rock, people were sick left and right, but I was one of the lucky ones not to get ill. The waves were a sight to see and it rained and rained…

  14. My gosh, Pat! That’s horrible. I’m so glad that the brunt of it missed you. Things could’ve turned out really bad.

    I was in a tornado once in 1979 in Wichita Falls. We huddled in the hallway and that was the only thing still standing when it was over. Looked like a bomb went off as far as we could see. Our car was inoperable so my husband, me, and our three kids walked to a friend’s house where we spent the night. The next day we tried to find somewhere to live but everything was already taken. We finally went to the next town over and stayed with my husband’s grandparents for quite a few months. That was the most frightened I’ve ever been in my life. I just knew we’d not survive it.

  15. When I was 13 we had a hurricane/tornado come through while we were at our cottage. We kids thought it was great. We gathered up all the pets and favourite toys and congrataged in a friends basement, it was really just a dug out, but it was big enough for us kids.The adults were all up stairs. I remember the waves from the water came right up ove the wall that lead to the beach. We had a blast. It only lasted for a couple of hours, but when we came out, we saw trees down, bushes gone. Screens ripped out of windows. Picnic tables turned over and smashed. I have never been through anything like that again. Just some very strong winds and rain.

    It makes me thankful always to still have my loved one and our homes still standing.

  16. Linda. . .I can’t even imagaine what you went through when hit by a tornado. It does say something about retreating to an inside hall, though. Next time I’ll be a bit more hasty about it.

  17. Tanya. . .No area in the country seems to escape some kind of natural catatrophe. The west coast has its earthquakes and fires, the far north has its blizzards,the east coast flooding, the midwest and south the tornados, and the southeast coast the hurricanes. And each has Mother Nature’s blessings as well.

  18. Hi Pat,
    Oh, what a scary thing to have happen to you Pat and I’m so relieved you and none of your neighbors were not seriously injured. Now, with a smile, I have to say I’d have done the same thing if I heard the news of a tornado. The first thing on your list, shut down the computer. Save your work! Save your writing. Then save the dogs and then yourself. 🙂
    It’s true we are very protective of our writing!

    I haven’t have severe weather, but I’ve lived thru 3 major California earthquakes. There’s no warning, and with the big ones, there’s ususally lots of damage and deaths. I’m sort of like you in that, I feel if the earthquake is going to get me, it’ll get me. Our last big one in 1994, it was January and we had very hot days. Now, when it’s hot in the winter, we call it Earthquake weather.

    I’m glad you are alright.

  19. Glad you and your pets are ok!
    I live in the Pacific Northwest about 20 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. The worst weather we get is rain and wind.

  20. We have tornados in Nebraska, too. My friend Maureen McKade recently had one near her home in North Dakota, and her mother’s home was hit. SO glad you’re safe, Pat!

  21. I guess the most frightening weather I have been is is tornados. I can remember setting in our basement and hearing a train sound outside. That is what they sound like to me.

  22. I was in the Philippines in the Peace Corps and was caught in a full force typhone while in Manila. They did not notify the public until just as it hit. I was down town at the main office when we were notified. I took a local bus out to the subburbs where I was staying. by the time I got there, the wind was blowing so hard you could hardly stand up. The rain was vicious and the water was almost mid-calf deep. There was no power and I had to bang on the gate of the yard and yell for the longest time before they heard me. The rain blew in around the windows. The next day, there were trees down all over and a lot of damage to buildings.
    We have also been caught in a blizzard in Iowa. It was -100 degrees with the wind chill. Nothing moved for 3 or 4 days. We had to hold our dog when she went out or her feet would freeze to the ground.

  23. I grew up in the Midwest, right in Tornado Alley. We spent many a night in the basement!
    I’m glad I now live in the Pacific Northwest where all we have to worry about are the volcanoes!

  24. Last year’s visit from Hurricane Ike was a real
    humdinger! Honey, DD2, and her boys were asleep
    on the living room rug, it was raining terribly
    hard, and the winds were strengthening by the
    minute. All of a sudden, the noise of the winds
    changed to a monotonous droney and whiny sound.
    They tell you not to look out the windows but I
    just had to take a peek. The branches of my poor pecan tree were spinning like a child’s pinwheel
    toy! After that, I definitely couldn’t sleep and
    didn’t until about 7 am. We found out the next day that a tornado had hopped and skipped it’s
    way through our area! It did minor damage and
    scared the daylights out of everyone, except our
    crew who slept through the whole thing!

    Pat Cochran

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