A Life-Long Fear of Tornadoes

Yesterday wasn’t the first time I sat horrified in front of a television watching a tornado in real time crush lives and property. Viewing a tornado as it’s happening generates its own heart-freezing terror, although videos are almost as bad. With live coverage, though, you’re not sure of the outcome, although yesterday it didn’t take long for helicopter coverage to reveal the ravaged state of Moore, Oklahoma.

I have a friend who lives in Oklahoma City, and I rushed back and forth between the computer and the television trying to determine where she lived and whether she was in the path of the twister. Fortunately, she lives to the north of OKC, so I knew she was relatively safe—if she was at home. If she wasn’t in Moore.

Thanks to Facebook, I learned she was okay, but that didn’t lessen the sick feeling of seeing the flattened streets and especially the wrecked schools. I was immediately transfixed by a segment of video that wound up replaying all evening in the tornado coverage: A long-range shot of kids running and embracing in the parking lot of Plaza Towers Elementary School. The two kids then turned and started running toward the road, presumably toward home to see what had befallen their houses and loved ones. At the entrance to the school driveway, people frantically spoke to one another and moved on. One person bent over the hood of a police vehicle, face down, as if overwhelmed. I couldn’t tell if it was a student or a parent.

At 3:48, the emotional scene at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

It’s so soon after the Newtown massacre to absorb another school tragedy in which children were harmed and killed. I empathize too deeply with people, even those presented in such a distant way on television. Knowing your child suffered and probably died in school without you must be unbearable. It’s beyond imagining. No, actually it’s not. I imagine it over and over, bleeding more each time. What a horrible catastrophe.

Southwestern Ohio isn’t known for tornadoes; the upsurge of “Doppler-indicated” tornadoes has made tornado warnings more frequent, yet on-the-ground twisters doing serious damage seem to happen only every few years. Still, that’s more often than we seemed to experience them during my childhood.

And yet, I’ve always been terrified of tornadoes. It was always a joke in my family because there was no local basis for my fear. I always blamed The Wizard of Oz. I was marked by that film at a very young age, and I always thought maybe the tornado with its terrifying special effects wormed its way into my subconscious while I was still too young to express what I was feeling.

Suddenly things changed in August, 1969, when a tornado ripped across a section of Cincinnati. The fact that I knew the area along the twister’s path well made it all that much more stunning. Damage was bad enough, although it wasn’t the kind of tornado that flattened entire neighborhoods. However, people did die.

Unfortunately, you can’t play this video on this site; but hit the “play” button, then click on the YouTube link and you can see a portion of the coverage we watched the evening of April 3, 1974.

My first instance of watching a tornado in real time was on April 3, 1974. There had been tornado sirens earlier that afternoon, the first time I’d experienced that, and we were watching the local news for weather updates. Suddenly on the screen was a shot of the Western hills of Cincinnati taken from the parking lot of WCPO. Above the rim of the hill line viewers could see a huge white-gray cloud churning in the sky. Although the tornado was miles beyond that hill line, the funnel looked huge. At the time I was so awestruck I didn’t think about the damage it was doing at the moment, which was significant. The tornado was the thing, I was watching it with my own eyes.

The most terrifying experiences I ever had with live tornado coverage was watching local news as meteorologists reported on the radar image that filled the screen—and seemed to show a funnel heading straight for an area where someone in my family lived.  One was the June 2, 1990, tornado that struck Harrison, Ohio. Mom, my stepfather, and Diamondqueen seemed to be in the storm’s projected path in an outlying area. I think the storm wound up taking a more northerly path, but I had several white-knuckle minutes wondering what the story behind that ugly radar image would be. (I think I phoned the house and warned Mom what was happening since it was between 11 p.m. and midnight, plus the sirens at that time wouldn’t have reached Strimple Road.)

[As a side note, that day was the occasion of the first time Diamondqueen referred to me as the “worst case scenario bitch.” We and Mom had been to lunch that day, and when we came out of the restaurant I commented that the weather was so hot and close, I wondered about tornadoes. Diamondqueen still calls me a worst case scenario bitch, but often amends it with “although the things you worry about do sometimes come true.”]

The second instance was the morning of April 9, 1999. There had been plenty of talk on the local weather coverage the day before about bad storms moving in. That evening I’d been visiting with Diamondqueen and That Poor Man in Loveland; Diamondqueen was in the last weeks of her first pregnancy (with J.Hooligan). Their beagle, Bailey, acted so queer all evening we wondered if she sensed the bad weather heading our way. It was so much on my mind that I gazed at the night sky as I drove home, wondering how severe the storms would really be.

I awoke very early the next morning to thunder, then thought I heard the distant shriek of a siren. I snapped on the TV and again stared at a radar screen hideously colored with a malicious mass. In those few years the technology had increased so much that the meteorologist could actually project specific streets in the storm’s path many minutes ahead of time. The path was uncomfortably close to the home of my pregnant sister and her husband.

I phoned. I think Diamondqueen was somewhat awake because Bailey was terrified of storms, but she knew nothing about the tornado nor was she hearing any sirens. There was time for her to wake up That Poor Man and drag him to the basement. The storm didn’t hit them, but it came close enough that I still get the shivers when I think about it. If it had been light enough and she had risked looking out the big picture window in the living room, Diamondqueen might have seen some aspect of the tornado as it wrecked structures within blocks of her house.

[Another side note: Before they moved into their house at that time, Diamondqueen, That Poor Man, and Bailey had lived on the upper floor of one unit in a large apartment complex not that far away. The complex was so damaged by the tornado that it was completely razed; new townhouses now cover that hill where their apartment building had stood. I also get the shivers when I think what might have happened if they’d still been living in that apartment.]

Our most recent Cincinnati-area tornado was last year, on March 1, 2012. At least this time I couldn’t think of any loved ones who might be in the path of the danger. However, as Mom and I sat watching the live coverage with the radar tracking the funnel as it crossed the Ohio River into Moscow, I commented how stunning it was to witness people’s lives being turned upside-down in process. I wasn’t necessarily familiar with much of the Kentucky countryside that was hit, but I knew Moscow well enough to picture what might be happening. As always, it’s a stomach-churning experience.

As harrowing as all this was for me personally, I’ve always been quite aware of several important points: 1) Neither I nor my family have ever suffered injury or damage from a tornado, for which I’m immensely grateful; 2) the fear generated by near misses hardly qualifies for anything as far as my experiences with tornadoes is concerned; 3) citizens of areas like Oklahoma face this authentic danger all the time—obviously, with my phobia, I wouldn’t thrive.

Thoughts and prayers are with those poor souls in Oklahoma; in my imagination, I dig through the rubble looking for children to comfort and reassure. And I’m self-centered enough to murmur a prayer of extended safety for my family and loved ones. Because there will always be another tornado.

[If you’d like to help tornado victims, donate to the Red Cross.]

You may also be interested in Thinking About the Weather

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