I’ve been working on a post about the series of tornadoes that broke out when we were living in Missouri between the summer of 2011 and 2012, including the Joplin Tornado, of which my father-in-law’s house was destroyed (he survived), and the Leap Day Tornado that hit our town in 2012. We were living in Branson, Missouri at the time and “The Strip” was hit pretty hard. Jerimiah’s office was destroyed, and he had to work from home for a few months before they found a new office in town, but everyone was okay. Shaken up, but okay. I’ve been working on the post since way back in February because I wanted to post it on Leap Day, because you know, topical and what not. But I couldn’t finish it. I was wading through the pictures I took in Joplin the day after, when Jerimiah and I went to help his dad fish his belongings out of the rubble, and I was so sad looking at those pictures that I was having a hard time writing words to accompany them. I was determined to finish the post this week, then yesterday I woke up to the news in Nashville.
Shit, you guys.
When a tornado season starts out like this, it isn’t good. I’ll just say that. And coming from a Kansas girl, a girl born and raised in The Great Plains, or Tornado Alley, whatever you want to call it, this is some severe, severe weather, and it won’t be going out like a lamb. We need to be prepared. We need to take this seriously. We can’t keep standing in the front yard, drinking our ranch dressing straight from the bottle, saying, “Ope, why’d the wind stop so suddenly?” We need to heed those warnings we all know, but have ignored for so long.
There really is no way for you to combat an F3 like the one in Nashville, which ripped through a heavily-populated part of town, or an F5 like in Joplin. There just isn’t. When it comes, it comes and you just have to hold on and hope you make it out. But the world is certainly more technologically advanced now than it was when I was a kid, and there aren’t many more excuses we can use. Listen to the warnings. Stay indoors. Don’t go out when the sky turns that black and gray color. If the wind suddenly stops and it gets eerily quiet, then it seems like a train comes out of nowhere, it isn’t a damn train, y’all. It’s a twister. Get out of your lawn chair, throw your Bud Light to the wind, and run into your basement. This is serious.
I know this seems like a duh to a lot of you, but the hard truth is, there are places in Tornado Alley where the belief is 100% “It won’t happen here.” In fact, I grew up with that notion. In Leavenworth they think because they are “in a valley” that the tornado won’t come to them. In truth it has been years since a big twister has struck there, and it does seem to strike close to them, all around them, in fact, but when I was a kid it never hit Leavenworth proper. Which meant there were a lot of lawn chair watchers. People making fun of people like my mom and me, who spent many a summer nights camped out in my closet (the most interior space, without windows) with a weather radio and a box of Legos for distraction. That’s the behavior of people who have lived through a twister (of which my mom did as a child). She knows how to take it seriously. But so many don’t, and it scares the shit out of me.
When Jerimiah and I were still dating, way, way back in 2003 a tornado hit Lawrence, Kansas. We were living in Lawrence at the time, and he was working at Blockbuster Video on 27th Street. It was the evening, about 7:00 pm, when I drove some dinner up to him at work. I was working at Best Buy, and had gotten off early and decided to treat him. The weather wasn’t looking great, but then again, it was Kansas, in May. The weather never looks great on warm, May nights in Kansas. That’s the peak of the season. When I walked in, I found him standing in the middle of the store with the District Manager. They were discussing whether or not to close up shop. Apparently a line of storms was headed for us and Blockbusters, if you may recall, were nothing but rows and rows of windows so you could look inside and see the rows and rows of projectiles lining the shelves. Jerimiah was at odds with his manager, who wanted to close. Jerimiah, a born and bred Kansas boy himself, was all “Nah, this will pass.” I mean it’s Lawrence, for fuck’s sake. A half a mile or so from the University of Kansas campus. Mother Nature knows better than to mess with the Jayhawks. Turns out he was wrong, terribly wrong.
About half an hour later the DM, Jerimiah, about three employees, and dumb me who stuck around to see how it would play out, were running toward the Baskin Robbins next door in a wind so hard and fast it took my breath away. Then suddenly it stopped. All was still. The sky was as black as I’d ever seen it, and it was quiet. Eerily quiet. The cars at the busy intersection had all stopped. The wind was gone. The rain and chatter, all silenced. We all stood in our tracks halfway between Blockbuster and Baskin Robbins and looked up toward the sky. Just then the sound came. They say it sounds like a freight train, y’all because IT SOUNDS LIKE A FREIGHT TRAIN. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, this funnel appeared. It was all black, just like the sky, so it was hard to see. I was mesmerized. Then suddenly someone pushed me from behind and yelled, “Run!” So I did.
I spent the next ten minutes in the freezer of the Baskin Robbins with the Blockbuster DM, two Baskin Robbins employees, and the rest of the Blockbuster crew (all of us kids). Jerimiah stood out in the ice cream parlor waiting and watching. It was one of the scariest moments of my life. And you certainly won’t find me in any lawn chair because of it.
The twister did hit campus that night. It also took out several apartment complexes, but to the best of my knowledge no one was killed. Injured, but not killed. It was only an F2, we were lucky. Below is the public info statement from the National Weather Service in Topeka. We were in Douglas County on 27th and Wakarusa.
This is how it happens when it happens. It happens in a lot of places, varying degree of damage and winds. Varying numbers on the Fujita scale. A twister can go from an F0 to an F3 pretty quickly. But some people just don’t respect the catastrophic ability, because when you are from a place where this happens all season long, you become numb to it. Until you aren’t anymore.
I don’t know why I’m sharing this story today. I think I was so messed up in my head when I heard about Nashville yesterday, that it brought up all this other stuff. These old memories, and I wondered if many of you don’t know how tornadoes work, why and when they come, that sort of thing. So I guess I’m trying to inform. To plead with you all to take it seriously. Because you just never know.
As for Nashville and Central Tennessee, I hope everyone is okay. Shaken, I know, but in tact for the most part. As I write this they have confirmed 19 deaths, there may be more to come. There usually is. I’m partial to the City of Nashville, to Central Tennessee. It’s one of our favorite places, and it’s a place that has brought my family and friends and me great joy in our lives. I know they will be okay, eventually, but not without help. Because of this I am adding some links to the bottom for ways you can help.
Maybe one day I will share that Leap Day Tornado story, or talk more about the Joplin tornado, but today just stay safe out there, y’all. And help if you can.