Fifty Ways of Looking at Tornadoes
For nine months now, I have been trying to write my way out of disaster. I thought it would be easier. Yet no matter how many times I report on that April afternoon in Tuscaloosa—when my wife, dog and I hid in the bathtub—still, the storm will not leave us.
Once, I made them by hand. You can make one, too. Pour a teaspoon of salt into a cylindrical glass and spin the spoon clockwise. Or counter clockwise. It doesn’t matter.
I am not the first to have fashioned one. In 1955, New York University's James E. Miller placed a pan of water in a circular box, positioning air slits on either side. The water was heated, emitting steam, and as additional air blew in, that steam grew into a cyclone.
Do not be fooled by the aforementioned examples of scientific ingenuity: humankind did not invent the tornado, nor has it improved upon the design.
Prior to creating them, we created warnings systems against them. In October of 1883, Edward S. Holden issued a call for an “apparatus” that might provide towns a few minutes warning in the event of a tornado strike. He suggested a highly elaborate network of bells, even created a prototype—a wired bell that rang upon exposure to a particular velocity of wind. Perhaps inspired by the recent invention of Thomas Edison’s telephone, Holden envisioned spools of underground wires connecting house-to-house and person-to-person, ensuring safety for all.
Despite Holden’s dreams of connectivity, findings from a 1972 study by professors John Sims and Duane Baumann noted a division, instead: "the number of tornado-caused deaths in the South is strikingly higher than it is in the remainder of the nation.” Sims and Baumann argued that this regional discrepancy was due, in part, to variations in housing structure, though also philosophical differences on the subject of danger. According to the report, while in the midst of a tornado watch, 24.2% of Illinoisans kept an eye tilted to the television, while 0.0% of Alabamians reacted in kind. Instead, Sims and Baumann explained, Alabamians much preferred “the method of using one's own senses—they 'watch the sky' or 'look at the clouds.’” It was a strategy deemed "psychologically anachronistic," a behavior from a bygone era in which the tomfoolery of front porch reconnaissance somehow overpowered the precision of science. Illinoisans relied on radar for up-to-the-minute weather reports, while 700 miles to the south Alabamians preferred confronting "the whirlwind alone with his God."
It is a comfort, perhaps, for Southerners to look their maker in the eye, though when I—a Northern transplant—rode out the storm in Tuscaloosa, I looked to no one. Looked at no one, either. I was not alone in that bathtub (I had my wife, our dog, our unborn child), but we with eyes aimed them low, tucking our heads tight beneath the couch cushions.
In April of 1981—thirty years prior to our afternoon spent in the tub—the Department of Commerce released a public service announcement entitled, Tornado Warning: A Booklet for Boys and Girls. Featuring the lovable Owlie Skywarn—an owl with a penchant for tornado spotting— the feathered fowl took children on a guided tour of the necessary facts to surviving a tornado. "Keep track of sunshine," Skywarn hoots. "…Your town needs you…"
Towns need survivors to survive.
I thought I was paying a price just by surviving. Thought that if I wrote enough about the tornado (paid my portion of its tribute) then it might blow away from us for good. It hasn’t. We tried leaving it instead, packed our bag and abandoned that town, relocating 1012 miles away. Still, it sleeps beside me on the pillow. Right now, I can hear it rattling in the vents.
Alabama has a long history of leveling, though few remember what occurred in Tuscumbia, Alabama at dinnertime on November 22, 1874. How ten were killed, thirty injured, and half the town rattled to rubble. Or what occurred in Leeds, Alabama a decade later, on February 19, at 1:20 in the afternoon: eleven dead, thirty-one injured, "hail of unusual size…"
Worse still was the destruction of March 21, 1932, when again tornadoes tore through the state. Within 48 hours, Alabama reported 200 dead, though the number would climb to 268. In the days that followed, the stories, like the bodies, began to pile. One recounted how three-year-old Douglas Sims was flung in a field after being torn from his father’s arms. As Douglas’s parents began their frantic search to retrieve him, one newspaper reported how lightning “revealed the youngster nearly 50 feet away walking towards them with outstretched arms."
They say that lightning never strikes twice, but the same is not true of tornadoes. Ask the people of Irving, Kansas, who on May 30, 1879 endured two less than an hour apart. On May 4, 1922, Austin, Texas, too, received a tornadic one-two punch. Though perhaps the record goes to Codell, Kansas, a town that received not two tornadoes in close succession, but three, exactly one year apart. May 20, 1916 was a bad day for the people of Codell, but so was May 20th the year after, and May 20th the year after that.
Ask meteorologists, they’ll tell you: Tornadoes keep careful calendars.
Meteorologists will also tell you that tornadoes share a lexicon with humans. Tornadoes, much like their victims, are born, die, and live a life in between. They travel in families (formed from parent storms), and are known to chase one another as if the “It” in a game of tag.
On April 27, 2011, the “It” tagged Tuscaloosa.
“You can't stop a tornado,” hoots Skywarn. “You can't keep it from hitting a house or town. Nobody can…But people can get out of its way."
On April 11, 1965, the people of Toledo tried just that. It struck anyhow, bringing with it something strange. The strangeness came in the form of two streams of parallel light, along with a cloud filled with lightning bolts “shooting straight ahead like arrows.” The tornado was said to be encircled by an “electric blue light,” as well as “balls of orange and lightning” trailing from the tip of the tail. Do not ask science to explain any of this. One witness added that the tornado’s tail was reminiscent of an elephant trunk. “It would dip down as if to get food then rise up again as if the trunk of an elephant would put the food in his mouth.”
When tornadoes are hungry they will eat a Krispy Kreme—not the donut, but the shop. My wife, dog, and I discovered this while walking the streets the morning after. The Krispy Kreme was hardly there (its front ripped off), but somehow, the drink cooler remained. The ice had yet to melt. And an even greater mystery: each bottle of milk remained upright.
Tornadoes, once, were a mystery. As a result of the devastation wrought by the East Baltic tornado of June 22, 1795, Johann Christoph Brotze—a teacher and historian from present day Latvia—created a sketch of a sketch of a tornado. He had not witnessed it himself, though he based his work from a curious drawing he’d seen. Brotze’s sketch, believed to be one of our earliest depictions of a tornado, revealed mostly what was expected—a cone-shaped cloud narrowing to a tail just beneath a blanket of darkness. Brotze’s tornado showed no swirling motion, but instead, appeared to be holding firm, a god's muscled torso surrounded by lightning bolts, his head hidden just out of frame.
Tornadoes, twice, were a mystery. John Parker Finley, an accomplished Army Signal Service officer, dedicated much of his life to trying to understand them. Most nineteenth century Americans had never seen one, though thanks to his 1887 illustrated book on the subject, Finley brought tornadoes into American households everywhere.
Tornadoes, thrice, were a mystery. A 1967 article in Science News admitted that while “[h]undreds of tornadoes maul the surface of the earth every year, taking hundreds of lives and smashing all but the sturdiest of man’s works…they remain one of the least understood of natural phenomena.”
Perhaps our lack of understanding isn’t confined to the scientific uncertainty of the phenomena, but our inability to fit tornadoes within a moral framework. When nature kills, we find excuses for its behavior. For instance, when a mountain climber dies, a part of us faults the climber for traversing such treacherous peaks. Likewise, when a sailor drowns, we secretly wonder what business that sailor had in the sea in the first place.
It is different with tornadoes. I swear to you, we took no chances in Tuscaloosa. Nobody tempted anything. That afternoon, my wife and I ate at an Indian buffet on Fifteenth Street. A few hours later, that restaurant became a demarcation line.
Eight days after April 27, I drove down what remained of Fifteenth Street and was surprised to find Central High School’s football players practicing in their pads. The school had been spared by half a mile, and already, they were back to bruising. I remember thinking: Look at those boys hustling to make the tackle, to break the tackle, to outrun the tornado.
Tornadoes bruise, too, though sometimes they destroy places rather than people—an unintentional mercy. They have been known to force the caps off of jam jars and strip the bark from the trees, even pluck chickens of their feathers. I try to imagine it: a chicken recklessly plucked, goosebumped at the edge of an empty field.
On the final page of Tornado Warning: A Booklet for Boys and Girls, the still-feathered Owlie Skywarn is pictured with his wings wrapped around a pair of smiling children. "We can't stop tornadoes," Skywarn hoots. "But we can live through them when we know how."
Where were all the tornado-spotting owls when we needed them?
I am struggling to put this into perspective.
In 1884, James Macfarlane, too, struggled with perspective. He had observed many tears in the land, believing them the handy work of unrecorded tornadoes. "There is evidence in the forests of Pennsylvania that many localities have been visited by tornadoes of which no accounts have ever been recorded," he explained, noting that sometimes the damage was concentrated to a small region rather than the typical swaths cut through the trees. According to Macfarlane, the once carefully combed earth appeared oddly uprooted—evidence of an edited country. Why were there no warnings?
The morning prior to the tornado, the front page of The Tuscaloosa News gave us our warning, beginning one article: "Here we go again." Throughout much of the spring, storms had regularly struck, perhaps causing some Tuscaloosans to downplay the seriousness of the situation.
Survivors are always survivors until they aren’t.
Fresh off the success of his previous work, Owlie Skywarn returned a few years later, this time in coloring book form. “Listen for the tornado's roar,” hoots Skywarn. “Some people say it sounds like a thousand trains."
Others, like me, heard nothing but a bathtub drip.
In the gym locker room later that week, I overheard the old men convene their morning meeting. First item on the agenda: discussing the latest body unearthed—a friend of a friend of a friend. "I've never been afraid of anything in my life," explained one. "But next time I hear the wind moving like that, I know I’ll be heading for cover."
By Friday, April 29, we were still without power, but that is all we were without. We still had our lives, our dog, our unborn child, our bathtub. This is the definition of privileged.
In a 1935 edition of Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, John Copley wrote, “It has been my privilege to observe several tornadoes at close range and also to examine the effects of others.”
Please see #37 for a true definition of “privilege.”
"For people getting their animals back, we usually make them show ID, but a lot of them just don't have it; they don't have anything,” an animal shelter representative explained to the local paper. “So we're going on gut instincts and the reaction of the animal…"
Hours prior to landing on Tuscaloosa’s airstrip, President Obama trusted his gut and ordered Seal Team Six to move. Then, he turned to our town, walked our rubble, whispered, “I’ve never see destruction like this.”
On Monday, May 2, The Tuscaloosa News likely became the only newspaper in America in which the death of Osama Bin Laden was not the lead.
There is a calculus to leadership.
There is no calculus to a cumulonimbus.
Tornadoes, like essays, demand the proper conditions.
Conditions, like calculus, are tornadoes.
Calculus, like families, demands answers.
Families, like tornadoes, have families.
Sinks, like memory, are a good place to store tornadoes.
Though essays, like bathtubs, provide only temporary relief.
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Cobb, Mark & Katherine Lee. “Shelters, Clinics take in displaced pets.” The Tuscaloosa
News 1 May 2011: 11A.
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“Obama: I’ve Never Seen Destruction Like This.” The Tuscaloosa News 30 April 2011:
“Rescuers Find Baby All Alone In Cotton Field," The Montgomery Advertiser, March 23, 1932
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