Monday, May 23, 2011

Tornado Terror

As I stood in the driveway last week, talking to my neighbor, the familiar sirens went off a few blocks away. I hear them often. They’re a signal to our local volunteer firefighters that their service is needed. It took me a long time to get used to these frequent alarms.

Especially on stormy days.

As my neighbor and I chatted, there were storm clouds rolling in. Big, ominous, dark clouds, full of rain and probably a bit of lightening. Then the fire house sirens went off. And my blood pressure shot up. I had to mentally coach myself that everything was okay.

Because, you see, I grew up in the Midwest. Bad weather in the spring brings lightning and thunder. And sometimes tornadoes. When you live in the Midwest you learn to live by the tornado sirens. You have tornado drills at school, where you end up crouched in a hallway with your hands cupped around the back of your head. And you never ignore a siren.

So when I hear warning sirens, as I’m standing outside watching dark clouds roll in, I’m pretty confident there’s a tornado headed my way. And my gut reaction is to gather my children and run for the safe corner in the basement. My neighbor, who was raised in tornado-free New York, and mostly concerned about the fact he wanted to get home before he got drenched by the approaching storm, had no idea the level of anxiety I was feeling.

And then, just days later, I turn on my TV on a quiet Monday morning, to see that my home state has been once again struck by a big one. Joplin is just over an hour from Springfield, where I went to college, met the love of my life, and gave birth to my first two children. I know that part of the state well.

I’ve crouched in closets and basements, waiting out similar storms, in that part of the state. I know what those people were feeling as the storm began to hit. And I’m deeply affected by the images I’m seeing on TV, of the aftermath. While riding the bike at the gym, I had to look away from the screen of the news channels that are running continuing footage of the devastation. I couldn’t afford to burst into tears in the middle of my work out.

And it seems selfish to even say it affects me, that it upsets my day. Who am I to complain? I have a safe, intact home, that will never be blown away by a tornado. I have survived a few blizzards in this house, but I’ve never dashed to the basement to take shelter from a tornado. I don’t personally know anyone in Joplin. I’m not waiting for funeral arrangements to be made for someone I love, who wasn’t safe from nature’s fury.

But my heart hurts the same.

Out of shock, and sorrow, from a weather event that I grew up fearing.

The randomness. The inconsistency. The disturbing potential for destruction. For the past decade I’ve lived in states that are not at risk for tornadoes. As a mom, it’s been a relief to take it off my list of things to worry about (at least until the next fire house siren blows).

I live in relief that I don’t ever have to try to outguess a tornado again. I don’t have to live through so many false alarms that you start to take them a bit more lightly. Then a big one hits nearby and you’re reminded once again, of its terrible unpredictability.

I’m sure the residents of Missouri, the state I still hold dear to my heart, will rally up and take care of their own. Every person I know in Missouri is the type of person who would stand in line to give blood and volunteer to clean up debris, if asked. That’s just how the Midwest works. I’d like to think that’s how America works.

So although I can’t do much more than give to the Red Cross, my money and my blood, from this long distance, I can think of my Midwest neighbors, and pray they get through this awful ordeal with a sense of peace and community. I will pray that they can bury their dead with respect, and be spared more storms that might come along this spring.

It’s a tough way to live, waiting for the next big one. I’d guess it’s not unlike the earthquake weary in Japan. Except the Japanese people don’t get anxiety every time they see a dark cloud in the distance.

My fellow Missourians in Joplin have a long haul ahead of them. Heart wrenching clean up and thoughtful rebuilding. It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy. But I know they’ll do it. It’s really all they can do at this point.

Pick up and move on with life. Salvage what you can, of your belongings and your emotional fortitude, and plow forward.

And wait, wait, wait, for the next forecast.

Making sure the safe corner of the basement is stocked and ready. Knowing that if the big one hits, and you survive to walk out into the chaos of its aftermath, your friend, neighbors, and countrymen will be there to help you start again.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for remembering and taking a few minutes to write about it.
As we sat crouched in the shelter of our basement last night I prayed that God be with those who would be hit. We were spared this time.
With love, Ellie

Anonymous said...

I'm a native Oklahoman and know well the terrors of tornadoes (and, as long as they aren't hovering outside your door, the thrill: let's be honest here). It wasn't until my daughter was born that I really started to care. Shortly after Joplin was destroyed we have a series of tornadoes sweep through just miles from my home. One family lost both their boys to the storm, the youngest, 15 mos, was killed in mom's arms. The oldest, still just three, was swept out of the family's home and deposited quite neatly in a nearby pond; after days of heart wrenching searches his body was found. Its not fair. Its horrifying. I'm not a crier and its not the first tornado based horror story I've heard and unfortunately won't be the last; but most of us at least consciously choose the risk in exchange for the good days of weather, the wonderful people, the low cost of living, and what has proven to be a fairly recession resistant state. This is our home. This will be our home. And yes, we will rebuild. We always do.

Just One Foot said...

Jenn, what a horrible story. I have trouble hearing those stories and holding onto my emotions at the same time. I cant imagine the grief those families are suffering.
And I understand why they'll stay. My dad and a brother still live in the tornado risky state of MO, where I grew up. They love it. It's their home, big winds or not.
I loved the post on tornadoes on your site. It's interesting to hear different perspectives.
Thanks for commenting here. I like knowing someone's reading. :)