May 14, 2010

OK, So It Might Have Been A Tornado After All

It wasn't a big tornado. To tell you the truth, I was in a downburst about 25 years ago that was much more frightening. In the downburst, my windows rattled to the point that I was afraid they were going to shatter. I remember picturing something of an explosion.

This, whatever it was? Not so much.

In my last post I told you about waking up Thursday morning to discover the power had just gone off. I gradually began to realize that we were in the midst of a thunderstorm, complete with ferocious winds. I listened to the wind, and knew it would be awhile before the power came back on. It was still dark so I didn't know if it was 2:00 a.m. or 6:00. a.m. so I thought about getting up to find my cell phone to see what time it was.

That's when the sirens went off. The sirens that, just yesterday, we were told that officials had sounded due to high winds. By yesterday afternoon, it was determined that a town to the southwest had been hit by an EF2 tornado. (On a scale of 0-5, and EF2 can cause "considerable" damage, ripping roofs off of houses.) They have not yet released a report on the path of that tornado, but it appears it may have been responsible for the roof that was ripped off of a shopping center 2 blocks from my house. Did I mention that I was sound asleep on the 2nd floor of my condo moments before the roof of that one-story building was ripped off? The National Weather Service now believes that there were 3 separate tornadoes in our area.

I mentioned in yesterday's post that I didn't experience 2 tell-tale signs of a tornado. I didn't hear anything that sounded like a freight train and I didn't have a headache or earache that would indicate a sudden change in the barometric pressure.

I didn't tell you that I did hear popping, along with the sounds of thunder and wind, while I was laying in bed, right before the sirens went off. Since my power had gone off, I thought it might be the sound of transformers blowing and wondered, briefly, if I should be concerned about that. I convinced myself it was probably something else. Later, when I saw huge tree limbs that had broken off, I thought maybe the popping had been the sound of those limbs cracking. I still don't know for sure, but if a tornado went right over me, then the popping could well have been transformers blowing as the result of power flashes caused by a tornado.

So, back to the moment when the sirens went off. To be fair, the danger had already passed me at that point, and the wind was dying down, but I still didn't know we had anything other than a run-of-the-mill thunderstorm with high winds. We get those a lot. The 10:00 p.m. weather reports had specifically noted there was little chance of tornadoes, just thunderstorms to come around daybreak.

The sound of the siren brought me fully awake, but it didn't scare me. I have lived in cities that have occasional tornadoes all of my life. When I was in elementary school, my family moved to Jackson, Mississippi. Despite that city's place on a  list of the top 10 tornado-prone cities in the United States, my school was built around 2 courtyards, each with glass on all 4 sides. That left only 2 short hallways that were free of windows in which students could gather during tornado drills. There were also a couple of pre-fab buildings, one of which held my classroom. We didn't rate a spot in one of those hallways. We were relegated to the boys' bathroom, which was located on an exterior wall. (For those who don't know, you always want to be in an interior area in a tornado, and preferably a small one, which is why those of us without basements or storm shelters go into lower level closets or bathrooms.) Even in the 4th grade, I knew we were in an area that was likely to have tornadoes and wondered who the genius was who had designed that school, and how the plan ever received approval for construction. You see, we learn about the risk of tornadoes and what to do and what not to do early in life.

Despite the high temperatures in advance of the cold front that came through early Thursday morning, meteorologists had told us there was little threat for a tornado. The only reason that I put clothes out to have ready to run downstairs in the middle of the night was because my mind kept telling me that Wednesday night "felt like" tornado weather.

So as I grabbed my purse and my clothes to go downstairs to the sound of blaring sirens, I was not in a panic. I was being cautious, because when you have spent your whole life in Tornado Alley, you know it's always better to err on the side of caution.

Which brings me to meteorologists. Once upon a time, anyone with a decent personality could do the weather on TV. Do you remember Robert Reed from The Brady Bunch? His first job in front the camera was as a TV weatherman. My sister had a friend who was a model in Dallas, and also did the weekend weather for one of the Dallas stations. Robert Reed and my sister's friend didn't know anything about meteorology. They didn't have to. Back then, there were 2 rules for those doing the weather: a) Women had to look good and b) Men had to have a shtick. (They were like Willard Scott. We had one who used to do the weather with a puppet.) The truth is, those "personalities" did as good a job of telling us when to get in the closet as the experts we have now, they didn't spend hours at a time telling us about storms that were not headed in our direction. I am on the side of those who believe that if we are desensitized to tornado watches and warnings around here, it is because that we are on Meteorological Overload. What does a Tornado Warning within 100 miles mean to locals? It means that all we're going to see on local stations for a couple of hours of Prime Time will be radar images, with the occasional feed from a weather spotter who is watching clouds through a wet windshield. For crying out loud, I wish they would use the commercial breaks, use the crawl at the bottom of the screen, and break in when a tornado is headed towards a community. Instead, they send us into a hypnotic state for hours on end and then act surprised when they discover that we have become desensitized.

I understand why they feel the need to preempt programming. They are all trained weather experts. They live and breathe the weather. They have radar that is so sensitive, it can pick up rotation...although they can't always tell what the rotation means.. They have computers that can often accurately predict the risk of tornadoes days in advance. They can save lives with this information. Provided, of course, we aren't looking at the TV through glazed eyes.

On May 4, the National Weather Service in Norman accurately predicted there would be a tornado outbreak in the Oklahoma City area during rush hour on May 10. They got it right. Without that accurate prediction, there would surely have been more than 2 deaths from what turned out to be a major outbreak of tornadoes. What's more, it began precisely when they said it would, during the afternoon rush hour. But even knowing that tornadoes could form at a given time on a specific day, we still have to go to work and to school. We still have to go out and live our lives.

There was an article on yesterday lamenting that people were told 6 days in advance that there was a likelihood of tornadoes in the area but streets and expressways were still packed at 5:00 on Monday, shortly before the tornadoes formed. Of course they were. What people who don't live in this part of the world fail to understand is that meteorologists can get the forecast right, and it still doesn't change how we live. Unless they could tell those in the affected area that an EF4 would touch down at the truck stop at I-40 and Choctaw Rd. at 5:30 p.m. on May 10, what were people supposed to do with the information? Was Oklahoma City and every surrounding suburb supposed to shut down at noon so everyone could go home and hide in their (mostly) non-existent basements? I have no doubt that with the bad weather coming in, many in Oklahoma City left work early on Monday. I would have done the same. But we're talking about hundreds of thousands of people trying to get home, and I'm sure every street and highway in the area was congested.

People were on the highways, first and foremost, because there was not an actual tornado warning in place when most of them headed home. The sirens had not yet sounded. A tornado warning is when people take cover because a tornado warning means that an actual tornado has been spotted. Sirens are not activated for watches; they are activated for warnings. Even when the sirens did sound, I don't know know how easy it would have been for people in traffic, particularly on expressways, to hear them. I'm sure they all understood that a tornado could suddenly drop down from the sky, but I imagine that few driving on I-40 expected their path to intersect with that of a tornado.

Oklahoma City covers an area of over 600 square miles. There are over half a million residents, and well over a million in the greater metropolitan area. Oklahoma City encompasses a sizable area. Even for the locals, it's not the easiest city to navigate because of the way it is laid out. I once knew a couple who joked that they almost got divorced when they got off the highway in Oklahoma City to eat and then couldn't find their way back on. (Ahem, someone didn't want to ask for directions.)

People outside of Tornado Alley don't understand that tornado watches are generally issued for multiple counties, and can affect thousands of square miles. A watch only means that conditions are right for tornadoes to form. It does not mean there is an actual tornado. It is not even a certainty that tornadoes will form, but it does indicate a strong likelihood. Oklahoma City was under a tornado watch Monday afternoon, until the first tornado was spotted, at which time a tornado warning would have been issued. That's why people were on the highways and not hiding in closets. We take warnings seriously, but most of us check to see where the tornado was spotted, and the direction it's going. The immediate threat generally passes in a matter of minutes. The warning will be issued for an entire county, but the whole county is not in the path of the tornado, and even within the tornado's path, it may only touch down for a single block. A tornado can wipe out one house and leave the houses on either side untouched. They can jump over 2-story buildings where people are sleeping soundly at 5:00 a.m. and only to come down and take the roof off of a shopping center 2 blocks away. We don't live our lives fearing the next tornado because we can't live that way, any more than Californians can live their lives fearing the next earthquake.

James, in Norman, wrote a post for his blog as he witnessed a tornado that went through Norman, home of the University of Oklahoma and just south of Oklahoma City. I found it interesting, well, partly because he was fully awake for his tornado, and partly because it shows what it's like to live in this part of the country aware of the risk for tornadoes, and knowing what to do. As he points out, sometimes shelters are hard to come by, particularly for apartment dwellers. James hasn't been in Oklahoma very long, but he had seen a few tornadoes even before his move to Norman. Last Monday evening was the first time he had ever seen so many drop within the same hour so close to each other.

That brings up another point. While it's not unheard of to have more than one tornado to come through an area, it's not like it's common for them to come in the dozens. Good grief, that almost never happens!  And while tornadoes such as the recent monster tornado that went through Mississippi stick in people's minds, most tornadoes aren't anywhere close to that size, and most don't stay on the ground that long.

We understand tornadoes in Tornado Alley. We understand the harm they can do without warning, just as people all along the west coasts of North and South America know that an earthquake can come without any warning, causing much more destruction and loss of life than tornadoes. We know that tornadoes can wipe out neighborhoods where we live, just as people who live along rivers know that spring floods can do the same. We also know that no matter how advanced technology is, meteorology is not a perfect science. It's true that meteorologists accurately predicted the May 10 tornadoes 6 days in advance. And at the same time, it's true that meteorologists failed to predict - as little as seven hours in advance - the May 13 tornado outbreak that hit my area. Even after 3 tornadoes touched down, they didn't recognize they were tornadoes until after they surveyed the damage those 3 tornadoes had caused.

Those of us who live in Tornado Alley know that regardless of powerful radars, computers, and trained meteorologists, we still have to trust our instincts. We know that we must have a plan if the worst should happen. We know what to do to protect ourselves and our families. We also understand that, like earthquakes, we can only control so much. Maybe that's the reason why Tornado Alley and the Bible Belt overlap. Tornadoes have taught many of us that, in the end, God is in control.We know that we have to trust Him, more than we trust ourselves.

That is why we don't live in fear of spring, and why many of us still love thunderstorms, even though those thunderstorms can hide something we would just as soon live without. God is in control. It turned out to be a blessing that the tornadoes came through at 5:00 a.m., while most of us were asleep. But if they had come through at 5:00 p.m., when most of us would have been on the roads, God would not be in less good, or any less in control. We understand that our lives aren't about this world, or what we can see and touch. There is more than this life. Much more.

Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” ~ James 4:14-15


  1. ok, i give an A+ to that tornado thesis.

    i didn't realize that we were the #2 tornado
    city. aren't we amazingly courageous folks?

  2. Wowzers. You're passionate about that ;) My husband is a Meteorologist w/ the Air Force. We can not watch tv weather in the presence of him. Although there are some 'real' meteorologists on the news channels, most are not. He & the guys at work get more laughs out of the actual Weather Channel than the local channels. Sad.

    We live in Biloxi & I've never had a siren until we moved here. We only get a siren b/c the base has a siren & we're close enough to hear it. We move to right outside of Omaha, NE this summer. Not looking forward to tornado warnings all of the time in the spring/summer months. But at least they have sirens & I have a REAL meteorologist in my life who calls me at work & says DO NOT drive home right now. =)

  3. Excellent info and comprehensive post on tornadoes and the state of meteorology today. It is fortunate that forecasting has gotten very fine tuned but it is not always helpful. However, if they only can do the same for earthquakes - having lived in LA during ten of the most seismically active years in the state's history - it's something you wish they had a better handle on.

  4. Lea - We're either courageous or maybe a little jaded. I think Thursday morning was the first time I had actually gone into the bathroom since the May '99 monster-tornado that fell apart west of the river. I have no idea how many times the sirens have gone off in all that time, but it's a lot.

    Crystal - I think the weather channel is pretty funny, too. They seem to be old-school weather people. They don't have to have a shtick, but looking good seems to be their only qualification. Personality isn't even necessary. Don't worry about the sirens in Omaha. You'll get used to them, and you'll learn that just because there's a tornado in the vicinity, it doesn't mean it's headed anywhere near you. =)

    Paula - I imagine earthquakes are stressful to live with. We have tiny ones here, but I've never felt one of them. I know people who swear they have, but I suspect they'd pass the mattress and the pea test, too. I suspect if they were better at forecasting them in LA, it would be like forecasting tornadoes in plains states. It makes you more aware, but there's not a lot you can do about it.

  5. By the way, the National Weather Service has increased the number of tornadoes that we had based on the storm damage to a total of 7 in the eastern part of the state, with 6 of them in our immediate area. We were not even under a tornado watch at the time the tornadoes formed, and a tornado warning was never issued.

    So if it feels like tornado weather, it probably is.

  6. Geez. It gives me chills thinking about the power and terror a full blown tornado would bring. I grew up in an area with frequent earthquakes and have been a couple BIG ones. And they just keep increasing in number and intensity worldwide. This old world is trying to shake these fleas off its back.