Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Stormy Day in Tornado Alley

I can’t think of anything that makes me feel more helpless than a near-brush with a tornado. Back in 1994 a tornado touched down a few miles south of our house. I will long remember that day. Jennifer and I sat on our front porch and watched the weird, thick, greenish-grey cover of clouds roll rapidly from west to east overhead. There was no sound. No wind. It was eerie.

We didn’t have the sophisticated internet radar that we have today so I had to rely solely upon our transistor weather radio. The sense of overwhelming powerlessness, of impending chaotic doom, is something I still carry with me today. I told Jennifer then that it was in moments like that when I could best understand why people need to believe in some higher being. There is something profoundly human about us that needs a counter-force to which to make an appeal in the face of reckless natural power. We were lucky then.

The other time that comes to mind was when Jennifer and I were celebrating our 13th wedding anniversary. (Lucky 13, right?) We were about to enjoy a bottle of champagne when, suddenly, a storm brewed up out of nowhere with constant, heavy lightning. Several nearby strikes were followed by a direct hit to the corner of our house. The electrical discharge filled the inside of the house and many of my daughter's battery powered toys magically activated in her bedroom. It was like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

I am a bit of a weather fanatic. When conditions are stormy I check out the various radar capabilities found at
NOAA and The Weather Channel. If it doesn’t look like we are going to receive a direct hit from a strong storm then I move on to other interests.

All day yesterday I kept checking these sites. From about 7:30 to 9:30 last night I was rather obsessed with a particular storm that was headed directly for my home after doing considerable damage to Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. About 9pm Jennifer, my daughter, and I cleaned out the storage under our stairway and prepared to get in there and cover ourselves with quilts and blankets. It appeared to be steering a path toward our spot on the map.

The storm had greatly diminished since plowing through the region just north of Birmingham but it was still very intense. Fortunately for us we only got the northern edge of it as it passed through here. A nearby community was not so lucky. About 6 miles away several homes were completely destroyed. A number of our friends either sent texts or emailed or phoned to make sure we were OK. I was thankful for their concern. Human contact often is the best medicine for the anxiety of the moment.

Yesterday
set a record for number of tornadoes for a single storm during my lifetime. I was simultaneously fascinated and concerned by the sheer quanity of large red cells showing up on the radar and the dozens of tornado warnings that appeared across Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee as the mass of blobs approached Georgia. The death toll is rising, as of this post it is nearing the number killed in the "Super Outbreak" of 1974, to which everyone is comparing this event.

I say “mass of blobs” because there was no clearly defined “front” for the storm.
It was all over the place. Instead of a line of storms there was a seemingly never-ending collection of enormous, somewhat circular, spheres of activity dotting the southeast moving powerfully from southwest to northeast.

Chattanooga was hit repeatedly all day long. One of my employees lives there and I let her go early when we found out her children were home alone after schools had closed about 10:30 yesterday morning. She got back home just before yet another strong storm hit that city. A giant water oak came crashing through her parents' house, puncturing the roof and causing water damage to part of the interior. They worked frantically before the next storm to clear the debris and put a tarp over the hole.

Our power went out at work about 9:30 yesterday morning when the first wave of storms passed through. Many trees were blown over and houses damaged. Several thousand people are still without power in our county today. That number grew as the day wore on and the
much larger patchwork of cells started rolling ominously through.

I have a gravel driveway at home. Already twice this spring torrential downpours have washed deep ruts in the angled drive from the road up to my carport. The first time I worked on the damage with a shovel and wheel-barrow. The second time I didn’t do anything. It is just as well, the hard rain last night would have only negated any efforts on my part of smooth things out.

We have lived with our driveway for about 17 years and we have never had the amount of trouble with erosion we have experienced so far this spring. This suggests something.

The way these storms came through last night and twice before to a lesser degree this spring is different from what we have experienced in recent history. It is enough to make me wonder if the nature of the moisture coming up from the Gulf of Mexico has changed. Could this be
an on-going symptom of global warming? La Nina? Or is it just a freaky occurrence?

I am hoping for the latter. But,
the checkerboard (instead of linear) nature of these intense storm systems so evident to my eye watching the radar this spring has me wondering. I don’t recall ever seeing anything like the chaotic pattern of intensity I have witnessed so far this year. Yesterday was the largest example of possible change in weather patterns, but it was the third time I’ve seen such activity since the beginning of March.

One of the many subtle
symptoms of global warming is supposed to be stronger storms and hurricanes. There may be no connection between what happened yesterday and record world-wide temperatures. But, perhaps there is. For now, it is just something I’ve noticed as an amateur weather watcher. Only time will tell if this is the new norm in a warmer world or simply a freak of nature.

Late note: Debris falls from the sky like snow upon my land. There are pieces of insulation everywhere. A shoe box in the middle of my woods near the path. Vinyl siding from some formerly Alabaman mobile home. We have some minor damage in our woods. Otherwise, we were lucky. We lived here through
the outbreak of 1994. It rained shards of indoor paneling then. A letter postmarked from Piedmont, Alabama fell on my great uncle's property about a half mile from our home. Tornadoes leave enormous debris fields often flung 20,000 feet or more up in the fierce upper currents of wind. It can land anywhere the air takes it and falls hundreds of miles from where the tornado actually lifted everything. On Saturday afternoon I sat in my woods. The day was bright and sunny. Beautiful light green leaves illuminated by sunlight are everywhere. Sitting on the bench there a gentle, warm southernly breeze brings the strong scent of sweet privet which richly blooms hundreds of feet away. I breathe deep and hear the leaves dance.

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