One of my fellow bloggers recently reported the near miss of a small tornado that she and her family endured a few days ago, and it got me thinking about tornadoes. Not the friendly kinid that whisk you away to Oz, but the mean, nasty real ones that kill people, destroy property and basically ruin lives. Yeah, that kind. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into a technical discussion of why there are tornadoes or what makes them tick (even though it is interesting) because any of us who have watched the Weather Channel or even their local news during tornado season have seen plenty of that stuff. No, what I want to do is just talk about my own experiences with tornadoes, which can be summed up by the phrase “wow, that was close!”
I lived in Texas for 16 years and Alabama for 7-1/2 years, so I’ve had plenty of exposure to tornadoes. (What in the world, you might ask, was an Oregon boy doing in the deep South? That’s a long and rather convoluted story that, as Plutarch was fond of saying, would be best told some other time.) My first near miss was in the fall of 1988, my first fall in Texas, when the remnants of a hurricane washed up over San Antonio; a tornado developed close to my apartment, then went over the hill, bounced off of the side of the VA hospital and tore through an apartment complex before dissipating. I remember driving past the apartments the next day and seeing how roofs had been torn off, siding ripped to shreds, and one third floor apartment was gutted (no one was hurt that I remember). The next one was around 1995 or 1996 (I only remember that it was around the time of all the base closures) and a tornado tore across Kelly AFB and part of Lackland AFB; the two were side by side (Kelly is now owned by the city of San Antonio, but Lackland is still where most Air Force enlisted personnel get their basic training). Kelly had a couple of big hangars destroyed and some other minor damage, while the damage to Lackland was to an undeveloped area, although I heard that a lot of recruits needed to go back to the barracks for clean uniforms! Then in the fall of 1997 some big storms were coming in from the north and I was out on my porch watching when I saw a distinct circular rotation in the greenish part of the storm, and heard later that a small tornado touched down briefly just south of my apartment complex. My last near miss in Texas happened in the spring of 2003 while I was working security at a Motel 6 on the west side of San Antonio (the wild, wild west!). A line of bad storms came through at about 4:00 AM, and after I made sure that everyone was inside I went up to the third floor so I could keep watch. (I know, I should have been inside, too, but I hoped I’d see it in time to give the desk clerk some warning and besides, if we got hit I wanted to see it!) I never saw anything, but you know that nasty growling sound that some of those tornadoes in the film Twister made? I heard that, and that’s the spookiest sound that I’ve ever heard.
Then we moved to Huntsville, Alabama in December 0f 2003. The following March we were house-sitting my inlaws’ place when storms came through at night with a lot of wind and lightning. The wind was howling around the house so bad that I was surprised that I didn’t see our roof come off, and all of the pool furniture went flying. It turns out that a small tornado tore through a neighborhood just on the other side of a hill from us and then must have bounced into the air and went over us. That’s a weird thing about tornadoes is how they can bounce off of a small rise and completely miss the next house down the road from the one it just shredded. They also tend to do a lot of weaving back and forth, but that is due to the coriolis force generated by…sorry, I almost got technical on you. In the summer of 2004 I hired on at Lake Guntersville State Park, about thirty miles east of Huntsville and on the Tennessee River, and we moved there into a camp trailer. One year it would be hurricane remnants blowing the park around and the next it would be tornadoes. One memorable night the park was under a tornado warning and we rounded everyone up and got them in our concrete bath houses, then most of the staff headed out in our vehicles and kept watch. The wind blew horribly hard and a few trees came down (no major damage), but the tornado went straight up the river and demolished a neighborhood about six or seven miles upstream.
The park and I parted ways in early January, 2008 (that’s a story I’ll probably never tell) and we moved to a little town called Boaz, about ten miles south of the park. Every spring and fall the tornado alarms would go off, sometimes repeatedly throughout the day and night, and I used to joke that it was like living through the London Blitz without the German bombers. But at this park we had cable and I could tune into the Weather Channel and watch their live Doppler radar, so it took me no time at all to learn to interpret what I was seeing on screen and apply it to where we lived and keep a good watch out for imminent danger. (Meteorology is one of the several -ologies that I’ve taught myself over the years; what can I say, some guys learn all about baseball, some about Nascar, I teach myself a bit of science!) I quickly noticed that the actual centers of rotation where the tornados were passing us were either a mile or two to the south or a mile or two to the north. Interesting… I soon realized that the pattern was so regular and predictable that even though I still kept one eye on the sky and one on the TV, I wasn’t nervous about it, which used to kind of freak my neighbors out until I explained it to them. My last spring in Alabama, which was 2010, a tornado rated at a low F-4 tore through several neighborhoods and a business section in Albertville, just two miles north of us. And in the spring of 2011 the state park that I used to work at took a direct hit from at least an F-3, one that absolutely levelled the campground. I’ve seen pictures of the damage online, and I had I not left the park my camper would have been shredded.
So now I’m away from all of that. Sort of… We get the occasional small tornadoes in Oregon, mostly in the Willamette Valley where there is a lot of flat land where the storms can get low and rotate their little hearts out. Most of the ones that we get here are F-0s and F-1s, but on December 14th of 2010 an F-2 tore a big chunk out of the little town of Aumsville, which is east of the state capital, Salem. I’ve also heard that they had an F-3 once up by Oregon City. We also on rare occasions get small twisters along the coast in the areas where the coastal plain is wide and flat. Why, just this past April a funnel cloud was spotted over Tillamook, about fifty miles up the coast. So we do get them here, just not where I live. You see, for a severe thunderstorm to produce a tornado it needs an expanse of flat ground where it can really get rotating; hills disturb the rotation so that you rarely ever see even a small twister over hilly terrain. That’s also why you see lots of tornadoes in places like Kansas and Oklahoma; in fact, the whole of North America from the Rockies to the Appalachians and from the Gulf of Mexico to well past the border with Canada is one big, flat, tornado-prone region.
I can say that God had my back in being so close to so many of these violent freaks of nature, but then I’ve known people who’ve spent their entire lives in Kansas, Alabama and Oklahoma who’ve been a lot closer a lot more often and came away with no more than a good tornado story. Maybe it’s just a matter of relevance, or maybe statistics, but I’m going to give play it safe and give God the credit, just like I’ll give Him credit for keeping my friend safe, with nothing worse than a couple of trees to cut up and a good tornado story. I know one thing, where I live now I can enjoy a good thunderstorm without getting nervous or insisting on putting the Weather Channel on the TV. I don’t miss tornadoes one bit.
I’ll deal with earthquakes and volcanoes anyday! That’s much better!