Sunday, April 25, 2010
A Weather Channel talking head named Vivian leveled her gaze at us, the worried viewers, on Friday night as an insane late-spring weather system bore down on the South like an invading army, on a front that was hundreds of miles wide.
After a notably quiet tornado season, during which the Weather Channel had run a headline that petulantly asked, “Where have all the tornadoes gone?”, Vivian could not contain her excitement over a storm system that seemed designed for sweeps week. She was clearly energized by the specter – nay, the CERTAINTY – of impending meteorological-related death and destruction.
“There is a strong likelihood not only for tornadoes but for severe tornadoes,” she said, with a glint in her eye. “And they’re going to come during the night, when we’re most vulnerable – as we’re sleeping.”
Even within the realm of weather forecasters who are notoriously aroused by meteorological threats, this seemed an unfair exploitation of the vulnerability we all felt. Plus, are not all tornadoes severe?
Watching Vivian, it was easy to imagine a Weather Channel job interview including questions such as, “Do you enjoy frightening children on Halloween? Not just giving them a start, but really frightening them – as in, making them cry? How about insecure old people at home alone at night during lightning storms?”
Vivian urged us to keep our weather radios on all night, and to make use of a new Weather Channel feature whereby they would call you on the phone if a storm was coming your way. (There is also an available phone app called “Severe Weather in the Palm of Your Hand”).
On the night in question my friends Mike Kardos and Katie Pierce and I were in Columbus, Mississippi for the Southern Literary Festival at Mississippi University for Women. Mike, a fiction writer and instructor at Mississippi State University, and Katie, a poet who is likewise an instructor at MSU, had done readings and/or led workshops with student writers as part of the festival. That night I spoke about Sultana, after which novelist Dedra Johnson read from her book Sandrine’s Letter to Tomorrow.
The Friday night event was held in a dim, 1960s-modern chapel that, as Dedra pointed out, felt like a mausoleum, against a backdrop of lightning flashes that illuminated the single stained glass window behind the podium while torrential downpours roared against the roof. I thought of the guys from the Sultana and all they’d gone through, including cowering, exposed without shelter, as prisoners of war during just such a storm. The crowd on hand for the literary event was surprisingly large considering the weather.
I'm a complete 'fraidy cat when it comes to tornadoes, after having once seen one approaching my house – a squat, roaring wedge of swirling navy blue, encircled by wispy pink clouds that were being sucked into its vortex – at which point I decided to do what they always advise against, which was to run. I got in my truck with my dog and sped away. I hadn’t made it 100 yards before the rain was falling so hard that I couldn’t see the hood of my truck, and was forced to roll slowly, hoping not to drive off into the creek or into a tree, at which point I suddenly realized I wasn’t running at all. I came through the episode unscathed, as did my house, though several trees were blown down. I never saw storms in quite the same way.
On another occasion a tornado swept by my house, downing trees before destroying a series of homes down the road. When I stopped to check on one family they were probing the debris for significant possessions, many of which (including a lot of clothes) had been blown from their obliterated house and hung, burning, in the tops of battered trees. The house had caught fire as it was being blown apart. Did I mention that it was also snowing? The weather. Man.
More recently, I encountered an approaching tornado while driving through the town of Bolton. I abandoned my truck in the middle of the street and ran toward the bank, knowing they had a vault. Curiously, as I ran toward the door one of my footfalls failed to reach the ground. Just one footfall, ending in the air. I’d been briefly lifted by the wind, after which I entered the lee of the bank building and continued on my way. It was just a few feet of involuntary flying: Not much, but enough. Together with the bank’s employees and one other customer I watched from the area near the open vault door as the roof of the fire station across the street and the disintegrating car wash tumbled past the windows.
I feel safer during tornado weather when I’m with other people, so the weather in Columbus that night was more energizing than frightening to me. We joked about the weather terrorists on TV, and continued to do so the next morning, when they informed us that we had an “8 in 10 chance of seeing a tornado today.” We did notice, with some bemusement, that they seemed particularly fixated on Mississippi, where numerous tornadoes had torn through the region to the west of us during the night. We also joked about the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” Whistling past the graveyard, as it were.
I was supposed to drive back to Bolton that day, Saturday, and did not look forward to a three-hour drive through a meteorological nightmare, especially after it started to hail in Columbus at around 7 a.m. But checking the weather radar, Katie, Mike and I decided that there was a narrow window during which we could make it to Starkville, their home (and where we could, if necessary, take refuge in the basement of the MSU English Department building), which would also put me a half-hour closer to my own home in Bolton. The drive to Starkville turned out to be unnerving: Few cars on the road, the sky dark with clouds that dragged little streamers, like tornado starter-kits. It felt like we were driving through the turbulent atmosphere, rather than on the ground.
Frequently returning to the radar screen while ensconced in the English Department, we observed that the storm was actually going to intensify as the day progressed, which meant that I could either hunker down there, in Starkville, for the rest of the weekend, or make use of what appeared to be another narrow window and high-tail it back to Bolton. The radar appeared to indicate that Highway 25, my route home, passed between a series of ugly red Weather Channel blobs, but was itself relatively clear.
It’s stupid, I know. You should not undertake a two-and-a-half-hour road trip when there are tornado warnings. Likewise, it had been stupid to run from the tornado that day at my house. But running is instinctive for me. So we agreed that Mike would monitor the weather and call me if it appeared that I was headed into something ugly, at which point I could, hopefully, seek refuge.
Between Starkville and Louisville, Mississippi I entered a strange meteorological zone. The sun came out and the wind picked up, blowing perhaps 60 mph, which had the effect of driving the racing shadows of clouds across the pavement directly at me. It was kind of dizzying, and reminded me of time-lapse photography. After that lightning began to flash to the south, where I knew a red blob sat, then to the north. I entered heavy rain, called Mike, who checked the radar and said there was a mostly green blob over Marydell, a community I’d just passed through, and that it was mostly green blobs from there to Jackson. “Not even any yellow, really,” he said, adding that there was a wicked looking red blob west of Vicksburg, headed toward me, on a parallel course, though it looked like I could make it to Jackson before it hit.
This was around 11:30 a.m. What was happening, as I nervously navigated my own green blobs, was that the red blob was crossing the Mississippi River north of Vicksburg, after having touched down in Louisiana, and was on its way to killing 10 people across a swath of destruction nearly a mile wide and 200 miles long. I’m glad I didn’t know it at the time. (You can see the path of the storm here: http://www.weather.com/newscenter/topstories/yazootornadopath.html)
After a few follow-up conversations with Mike, I made it home uneventfully. I heard about the killer tornado later, and felt a bit chastened about having scoffed at the maniacal Vivian, and, for that matter, for having set out on a road trip under those conditions.
My nerves were a bit frazzled, not only because of the drive but because before I departed Starkville Katie and I had seen our doppelgangers in the reflection of an elevator as the door opened – supposedly a bad omen – and, having perhaps been primed for it by so many image-rich poetry readings – I had noticed what seemed to be an inordinate number of buzzards roosting along the stormy highway. I had also passed a hearse, and meanwhile, what seemed to be the same, lone black man driving in different cars.
It was eery, freighted, and menacing. So it was that the day should end on an equally weird and disturbing note, when my friend John and I, while sitting at a bar in Jackson, saw a woman at the next table sink from her chair onto the floor, having passed out from what her friends, both of whom were texting obliviously as she sank to the floor, said was “four or five drinks, plus she used to be in the Air Force, and she takes medication for migraines, and she had amnesia.”
As John and I and the guys from the surrounding tables hoisted the unconscious woman into a chair and someone called an ambulance, one guy who turned out to be a dentist monitored her pulse. We never heard what happened to her after the ambulance took her away.
I had nightmares that night, reminiscent of a David Lynch movie, in which I was aware that I was dreaming, and performed magical dream stunts for my dream characters, including folding my knees against my chest and flying, high into the air, into the clouds.
The next day I read on the Weather Channel that Saturday's tornado had carried debris, including pieces of tin, houses, trees and who knows what else, 8,000 feet into the air.