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?