The Thinker

Weather we like it or not

It’s only May 27th, but only seven deaths stand between 2011 and matching the number of the most people killed by tornadoes in a year since 1953. Given that tornado season has hardly started, it seems that in 2011 we might break the all time national grisly record of 794 people killed by tornados set in 1925.

Most of the carnage was directed at the Midwest and South. 132 people died in Joplin, Missouri on May 22nd. The tornado injured 750 others. With 156 people unaccounted for in Joplin, it seems likely that this number will climb. April tornadoes that devastated much of Alabama and Mississippi were just practice for the massive cyclone that hit Joplin five days ago. Tornadoes killed 321 people between April 25 and April 28.

The National Weather Service estimates there were 875 tornadoes in April, most of them on April 25. On April 26, around 11:30 p.m. a relatively weak tornado with eighty miles an hour winds struck nearby Reston, Virginia. It came within a hundred feet or so of hitting the Unitarian Universalist church I attend. Our minister was burning some midnight oil in her office when it hit but fortunately was unhurt. Our spanking brand new building addition that we just dedicated a couple months earlier might have been leveled. Fortunately it passed between our church and a local senior citizens housing complex a couple hundred feet away. It sheared a number of trees, including one that fell on our playground.

What’s to blame? Meteorology is not yet an exact science, but a phenomenon called La Niña is likely at least partially at fault. Tornadoes get their energy from the juxtaposition of hot and cold air. It’s hard for me not to attribute at least some of the magnitude and large numbers of these tornadoes to climate change, and its global warming aspect in particular. Of course, fatalities are likely to rise when tornadoes hit populated areas. With a hundred million more of us in the United States than there were just forty years ago, today’s tornadoes are likelier to inflict more damage and death.

I never really considered myself living in tornado country before. It is true that here in Northern Virginia we do get occasional tornado watches and warnings. They used to be an occasional thing: once a month or so during tornado season. In thirty years of living in this area, I can count on one hand the number of times a real tornado came within ten miles of my house. Now I feel sort of spooked. Lately there have been tornado watches a couple of times a week, and the one tornado that did strike near us nearly hit a building I attend regularly. Is all this random chance or am I witnessing the beginning of new and more dangerous weather patterns? If I were Spiderman, my spidey senses would be tingling. In fact, my senses are tingling all over, and I don’t think it’s due to electrostatic charges in the atmosphere.

Perhaps I would be less alarmed if I did not have a brother who is a meteorologist and a wife whose idea of fun is spending nights on the computer watching TornadoVideos.Net tracking severe storms. She seems to get happier the closer they get to us. I feel panicky. I want to run and hide in our basement bathroom. I used to tune out thunder. Now hearing thunder pumps the adrenaline. I now especially don’t like thunderstorms at night. At least during the day you can see them and maybe have some warning. At night tornados could catch me unaware.

I knew it was bothering me when the other day I found myself signing up on The Weather Channel’s web site for severe weather email alerts. So far though these emails only add to my sense of fear. I have localized weather alerts to my zip code, but most weeks I can count on getting severe weather alerts at least a couple of times during the week. Often it is nothing (“Coastal flood advisory”– when am I near a body of water?), more often it is flash flood warnings, but about ten percent of the time it is a TORNADO WATCH or even worse a TORNADO WARNING. That is when the adrenaline really starts pumping. Like now, for example. Within the last fifteen minutes I got three warnings, the latest that says:

..A TORNADO WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 715 PM EDT FOR FAIRFAX…PRINCE WILLIAM AND STAFFORD COUNTIES…

AT 654 PM EDT…NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DOPPLER RADAR CONTINUED TO INDICATE A SEVERE THUNDERSTORM CAPABLE OF PRODUCING A TORNADO. THIS TORNADO WAS LOCATED NEAR STAFFORD…MOVING NORTHEAST AT 50 MPH.

Be prepared, is the Boy Scout motto. That was one of the few lessons I retained from my Boy Scout years. Forewarned is forearmed. What else can I reasonably do? The thought has occurred to me that I might not be near a computer when one of these tornado warnings arrives. Maybe what I need is a weather radio, one with a backup battery and a hand crank. This way if at 2 AM there is a tornado warning I will at least be aware of it, unless the Weather Radio tower was blown down by a tornado. I will also be something of an adrenaline-filled zombie as well, and unlikely to sleep the rest of the night.

TAKE COVER NOW. MOVE TO AN INTERIOR ROOM ON THE LOWEST FLOOR OF A STURDY BUILDING AND AVOID WINDOWS. IF OUTDOORS OR IN A MOBILE HOME OR VEHICLE…MOVE TO THE CLOSEST SUBSTANTIAL SHELTER AND PROTECT YOURSELF FROM FLYING DEBRIS.

Maybe it is too much. Maybe instead of email alerts and weather radios, I need to revel in ignorance again. Maybe what I really need in a fatalistic attitude and an emergency supply of Valium. My suspicion is unless I retire to an area far away from a tornado zone, I will be living on edge for the rest of my life, at least during tornado season.

The Rapture did not happen on May 21st, but the weather is getting freakier, and seemingly freakier every day.

I think I need that Valium. And maybe a Bible.

 

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