“Get in the basement!”
Those four words drive terror in my heart with the speed and accuracy of a striking rattlesnake. “Get in the basement!” means that a tornado may be coming my way, and it’s time to duck and cover – or, in my case, roll myself up into a whimpering ball of misery, praying desperately, while I simultaneously and paradoxically murmur “Stay calm, it’s no big deal” to my children while they are trapped in a vise like grip under each of my arms.
“Get in the basement!” means that my husband, normally calm and relaxed in even the most severe of storms, is concerned enough to herd his beloved family into underground shelter. This is a man who enjoys sitting on the porch during a thunderstorm for a better view of the lightning as it flashes across the sky. If he thinks we belong in the basement, you can bet your last nickel that we are getting our sweet bottoms down the stairs, no questions asked.
I have to pause right now to clarify that I have never been in an actual tornado. I have never sat in my home and listened to the roaring train of a tornado passing over it. I have never suffered property damage from these most dangerous of weather events. I hope and pray that I never do. For those of you reading this who have, my heart goes out to you. I can’t imagine what you have endured.
Until I moved to Pennsylvania nine years ago, I never once imagined this would be a concern of mine. Prior to my relocation here, I lived my entire adult life in Arizona, a place where, in the words of my sister, they “don’t have weather.” This, of course, is not strictly true. But when you live somewhere that has unremitting sunshine day in and day out, seemingly for years on end, you can start to believe it is.
It never occurred to me that Pennsylvania would have tornado activity. If I had paid any attention at all in school, I suppose a basic knowledge of geography would have alerted me to the fact that Western Pennsylvania rests on the very edge of the Midwest, a portion of our nation notorious for its tornado activity. By no stretch of the imagination, however, does it experience the frequent tornadoes that states such as Oklahoma and Kansas do. Compared to the long stretches of prairie that comprise our nation’s “Tornado Alley,” the tornado risk is relatively low.
That is to say, tornados do occur, but not typically with the strength or frequency they occur in the Midwest. That is reassuring on paper, but not so soothing to me in practical application. When the tornado siren is wailing, relatively low is a cold comfort. Especially when you consider that significant damage can occur from storms that do not reach even reach the destructive wind speeds of a tornado.
By way of illustration, let me share some pictures of a spring storm that blew through my town this past May. Keep in mind – these damages were not caused by a tornado, but rather from an especially strong thunderstorm that centered on my neighborhood. The official explanation was that a “microburst” had occurred. Whatever the name, the damages were significant. I would estimate the entire event was over in five minutes or less.
All of this damage was visible from my front yard. If you live in a storm prone area, these photos may not seem extreme. If, like I once did, you live a sheltered life in a calm and sunny corner of the world, they may appear more alarming.
I am inspired to share my phobia with you because of something I experienced today. We enjoyed a long and soaking rain after dinner this evening. I even commented to my husband how refreshing it felt, and how although the rain was heavy, the wind seemed absent. Not many moments after that, a large gust of wind passed over our house and a loud “CRACK” echoed through the air. It sounded just like the snapping of a large limb or tree.
Brian ran to the window and observed dark, low clouds organizing into a funnel shape not too far from our home. “Get in the basement!” he commanded, and into the basement we went. Brian watched the clouds from the basement window, and observing that they seemed to be breaking apart, just as quickly as they had once started gathering. There was no siren, and no warning on local channels. It was a very localized event, and it was over before it had a chance to begin. We left the basement, still a bit shaky, and not sure exactly what had happened. I suppose it was just “one of those things.”
I am thankful it was not something more. To the millions of Americans living in tornado prone areas of our country – I tip my hat to you in recognition of your bravery. I myself would need to be heavily medicated to live where you do.
JULY 28, 2013 – EDITED TO ADD: There was tornado yesterday! About a mile from my house, a small one reportedly touched down. I think what we saw was the tail end of it, not the beginning of it as we assumed.