Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tornado Country

The vast majority of people I know who grew up in the Midwest have strong memories of a shared childhood fear: tornadoes.  It wasn't until I'd left Minnesota that I discovered that other children did not have tornado drills in their schools, where they were asked to duck and cover under the desks or beneath the coat racks in the hallways.  Several classrooms in my high school were in an area of the school that was intended to be temporary, but ended up sticking around for several decades.  An amusing memory from high school includes a teacher announcing that although the official recommendation upon a tornado warning was that we duck under the desks, if we happened to see her running for the [solid, concrete] bathrooms we should feel free to follow.  In Minnesota, every child learns that if you are out driving in a tornado warning (or in sight of a funnel cloud, though I have never actually experienced this) you should get out of the car and lie in a ditch. 

I can't find the post offhand, but I think we've written here previously about the strange New Jersey use of sirens to signify snow days rather than tornado warnings.  In Minnesota (and Wisconsin) a piercing outdoor siren undeniably signals that it is time to drop everything, grab your pets and a radio, and run for the basement.  You may be stuck there for an hour or more, and you will spend much of the time contemplating whether you should huddle under the most structurally sound portion of the house and whether it would be safe to sneak upstairs and try [fruitlessly] to catch a glimpse of a funnel cloud.  This was a several times per summer ritual.  I remember once when my friends and I were out for a walk in the rain and the sirens went off.  We were several blocks from home, and instead of running for it we knocked on the door of an almost-stranger and asked to cower in their basement.  This seemed semi-normal at the time.  Because we grew up with a shared fear of tornadoes, and so did those people, and so did their children.

Supposedly they do have tornadoes out here in the East.  One weekend last summer my sister and her family were visiting us.  We had just enjoyed dinner in a restaurant, and Becky volunteered to take our overtired nephews outside to burn off a little energy while Jen and Sean and I finished up.  A bit later I followed them outside, and noticed a vaguely familiar green tinge to the sky.  On a whim, I glanced at my smartphone and actually bothered to check the "severe weather alert."  It said "tornado warning."  Becky and Jen and I shared a moment of muted panic.  There were no sirens announcing it; New Jerseyians were carrying on as if nothing was happening.  But you can't take years of Midwestern training out of us.  We rushed to a nearby supermarket and waited out the warning.  Sean, the non-Midwesterner among us, was a bit bewildered about what all the fuss was about.  Because he did not grow up with the constant specter of tornadoes hanging over his head.

There have been awful tornadoes in several parts of the country recently.  The worst hit places are far from either of our childhood homes.  But this weekend there was a tornado that touched down not far from my parents' home.  The pictures bring back strong childhood memories of that intense tornado fear.  I am thankful to live in a part of the world where this fear can be muted, and I am thinking of all the people in the South and Missouri and Minnesota who have lost loved ones or are dealing with damaged property.


  1. People not of the South do NOT get it. That green sky is something you can't explain, nor the electricity in the air. In Ohio, people don't get that it's REAL, even though a tornado took out the arboretum last year.

    But sirens for a snow day? That's just asking for an anxiety attack.

  2. I distinctly remember seeing (after the fact) tornado damage in Flint, Michigan when I was just three years old (1953). That tornado just slipped from being the 9th deadliest in the US to 10th. It's no wonder I passed my respect for tornado warnings on to my kids.

  3. Yikes. I've just been thinking similar thoughts (also growing up as a Minnesotan, and now living in Ohio, where people seem to think catching sight of a funnel cloud might be a fun activity...). Selfishly, I'm glad that tornado in Minnesota missed my parents' home, as well. The destruction being caused by tornados thus far this year is sickening.

  4. Apparently people of Ohio have a conflicted relationship with whether they are Midwestern or not. :) And Jo, I'm glad to hear that someone else agrees on the snow day sirens!!

    Mom - I'm surprised I've never heard you talk about the Flint tornado. But I guess your teaching worked!

  5. the sirens in NJ ( at least where i grew) were actually purposed air raid sirens. They were pretty useless by the late 90s (eg, barely audible) and the town finally sprung to replace them, but I don't think they're good enough for a tornado warning (nor would anyone know what to do!)

  6. I hope your family and friends are alright! my thoughts are with you.