We’re not supposed to get tornadoes in New England. It’s one of the things I love about living here—the lack of natural disasters. No earthquakes, except for the occasional anomaly, and being this far inland, Northampton generally doesn’t get the worst of the hurricanes. Tsunamis and wildfires seem unlikely. Snowstorms, I can deal with.
So, I was not pleased to find myself sitting in the basement last Wednesday afternoon as a storm raged outside. I was alone, which made it worse. Before the storm hit, I had driven Chuck over to his friend’s house. It wasn’t until I got home and the rain started that I realized that I had left him alone with his friend in a house with no basement. It would have been wiser to bring them back home with me. I kept calling to make sure he was OK, undoubtedly driving him nuts.
Ted was at his yo-yo class. I was worried that they didn’t know about the tornado warning, since school was out for the day. Back in Michigan, where I grew up, I could have counted on the tornado sirens alerting everyone. Here, we have to rely on the news and the Internet. The husband was at work at UMass, where they all went into an interior area. (I still contend that they should have gone to the basement.) The dog was at the top of the basement stairs in the pantry, because I couldn’t get her to come down the stairs with me. As it was, I had to drag her into the pantry when even a food bribe wouldn’t work. Fortunately, I have wooden floors, and fuzzy creatures slide easily.
Alone in the basement, I had two phones (regular and cell), a book, a flashlight, and my iPod touch. Waiting out a storm has gotten a bit more pleasant since the days when Auntie Em and Uncle Henry huddled in the shelter. I spent about fifteen minutes in the basement while transmitting my anxiety on Twitter and Facebook. Curiously, the only other friends tweeting and facebooking their tornado experience were the former Midwesterners. We all know what to do in this situation. Fast on the heels of the first line, another section of the storm hit, and it was back in the basement for me. When I came up, blinking like a mole 15 minutes later, the TV was showing live footage of a tornado moving through West Springfield toward downtown. We were fine in the central part of the valley, but the southern end was not.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tornado go through a city. It crossed the Connecticut River, sucking up water like a hoover, crossed I-91 clogged with cars, and smashed into downtown Springfield. That more people weren’t killed seems a miracle. All in all, with at least 7 tornados touching down in the region, only 4 people died (thought the damage was extensive). My friend’s husband was driving an ambulance on the bridge across the Connecticut when the tornado hit, another was in a car on Main Street in the South End of Springfield. After whacking Springfield, the tornado stayed on the ground long enough to leave a miles long scar across the landscape.
When the weather calmed later in the evening, and bizarre pink and red clouds floated over our house, I felt exhausted and spent, like I had been through a major trauma. I also felt ridiculous—nothing much had happened here. But I can’t take storms lightly. Thunder and wind always make me far more anxious than they should. They take me instantly back to The Tornado, as we call it in my family.
In March of 1976, a tornado hit Oakland County, Michigan, and mostly our neighborhood. According to a page on the NOAA site, it was an F4. The warning had been issued just before it hit and there were no sirens at that point. (In fact, sirens were installed as the result of this tornado.) Our house was fine—at its closest the tornado was at least 200 yards away—but it was terrifying nonetheless. My memories of it are almost snapshots: The unseasonably hot, gloomy day. My mother yelling: “It’s a tornado, get in the hall!” All of us sitting in the hallway, my life passing before my eyes. (I swear it did, but I was only nine, so who knows.) The utter silence afterwards, until the sirens started. Looking across the yards and seeing the dead tree, one of my favorite landmarks in the neighborhood, on fire (caused by a downed power line). Driving through the neighborhood to see the damage. The images of ripped apart houses are always accompanied by the song “Dream Weaver,” which was popular at the time. The song still creeps me out (and it’s quite creepy to begin with).
Living in Minnesota did not do much to alleviate my fear of storms. Though I never experienced a tornado in my eight years there, I did experience the strongest, scariest storms of my life. My theory: storms are able to build up huge strength as they cross the Dakotas and Minnesota—since there’s nothing in their way—and by the time they hit the Twin Cities it’s like they’re on steroids. I swear a clap of thunder once knocked me out of my bed. Our last summer there was the worst. Huge storms with straight-line winds hit with alarming regularity, taking out a huge number of the trees lining St. Paul’s streets. The harshest storm hit a few days before we put our house on the market. As I cowered in the basement with the dog (this one went downstairs readily), my husband stood in the dining room watching pieces of our neighbor’s house fly off. (Note: my instinct in a storm is to seek shelter. My husband’s instinct is to find a window and watch it. This is not my favorite of his personality quirks). Miraculously, there was no damage to our house, though our neighbor’s metal awning and a very large tree limb landed within feet of our house.
We had another nasty line of storms come through last night and then this afternoon. The dog and I are just now recovering. If you need me, I’ll be in the basement.