For the first time I can ever remember in Alabama, the school day for my kids was canceled in its entirety on just the threat of thunderstorms and tornadoes. Except for a squall line passing through early this morning, the day has been sunny and warm.
Tornadoes, Alabama and spring time go together like hurricanes and Gulf Coast beaches in late summer and fall. If you live here long enough, you eventually get accustomed to them. Or, should. I remember getting off the school bus one particularly steamy day in the late spring of 1976 or ’77 (I was about fifteen at the time) and running through a massive thunderstorm on my way home from the bus stop, just getting in the house before the storm blew a few shingles off the roof. I was home alone for some reason, and watched from the windows in the den as the sky outside turned green and so thick until it looked as if the house were at the bottom of the ocean. I later found out that it was the beginnings of a massive F5 tornado that would ultimately kill twenty-one people in a black neighborhood about a mile away, as the crow flies and the tornadoes travel, from my house.
After that, my dad, who I later realized never really owned anything but that the things he putatively owned instead owned him, purchased a weather radio–the only good way to get warnings of storms at the time–and every time that stupid thing went off, he squirreled the whole family downstairs to my room, because my room was in the basement at its most subterranean point. I thought then, and still do, that it was an utterly foolish thing to do. An F5 tornado doesn’t care in which room you are hiding; even a basement isn’t safe in an F5, and pretty much anything less than an F5 is survivable so long as you stay out of mobile homes. Besides, from what little I’d been taught of my parent’s Christian beliefs, it seemed to me a theological contradiction to try to escape the wrath of God in such a manner. Wasn’t the whole point of enduring this life the reward (i.e., heaven) at the end? Wouldn’t it be a blessed event to have the Father swoop in and relieve you of the burden of existence in such a dramatic fashion? Dad never much thought my questions were cute. I think he thought I was just a smartass. It made him mad that I somehow couldn’t summon the fear he thought requisite for the situation.
Tornadoes, or “severe weather” as the TV weathermen like to euphemistically refer to them, are supposedly gaining in intensity and frequency because of global warming. Or not. Either way it turns out, global warming will surely be the culprit.
It was April of 1998 when I saw first-hand the awesome destructiveness of an F5 tornado. We were living out in West Jefferson County, Alabama in a little place called Maytown, when an F5 barreled through next-door Sylvan Springs and Mulga (among a lot of other places–it had a track that swept across the whole state). In the places where the thing touched down, it was as if a B-52 had laid down bombs like a carpet. There was more than one family in Sylvan Springs that died huddled together in their basement that night. Just like a basement wouldn’t provide much protection from a direct B-52 strike, neither will it offer much protection from the direct hit of an F5. F5 tornadoes are the most powerful natural phenomenon known to man. No one really knows for sure the upper limits of their winds, because they can’t be measured without dying in the process. But tornadoes up to about an F3 are mostly just a nuisance. They knock down trees and blow roofs off houses, but they don’t level well-built houses to their foundations.
It’s only recently (the last decade or so) that there is round-the-clock coverage of weather events, at least on the local channels, and an “event” can be as insignificant as a half-inch of snow or a regular old summer thunderstorm. “Events” like today, where there have been actual sightings of tornadoes, garner live, uninterrupted coverage even after the threat passes. Happily for the state’s actual theology and philosophy of existence, tornadoes are extremely rare during football season, so football games, especially Alabama and Auburn football games, are almost never preempted for weather coverage. TV weathermen have to love these days, as they play priest and shaman to the huddled masses enthralled and credulous at their knowledge of Mother Nature’s intentions. But it would be hard to argue that even one life has ever been saved by all their prognosticating. F5’s kill, and indiscriminately, but are rare. F’s 1, 2 & 3’s don’t, except in trailer parks, and are common. F4’s maybe kill, maybe don’t, but are almost as rare as F5’s. No amount of warning will make F5’s any less vicious, and no lack of warning will make F’s1-3 any more deadly.
So, I don’t know where I’m a gonna go when the tornado blows (with apologies to Jimmy Buffet). I’m not gonna much worry about it though. I won’t go running to the basement every time the weather sirens go off (the modern-day equivalent of the weather radio that is eerily similar to the air-raid warning sirens in Saudi Arabia). If the tornado’s big and bad enough, there’s no place to run and no place to hide. Since there’s no way of knowing until it hits, I’ll just stay away from my neighbor’s backyard pecan trees that lose at least two or three branches every time the wind blows, and maybe get down out of this attic. If I lived in a trailer park, I’d have moved by now, or dug a hole to crawl into. Even though I learned long ago that happiness depended on turning my love away from things that can’t be possessed without the fear of losing*, which is completely contrary to every thing I might have learned from my Christian upbringing, a lack of fear does not justify active stupidity. It just means you go wherever you can when the tornado blows and let God take care of the rest.
*from St. Augustine’s On Free Choice of Will
Update: This was a bad one. Tornadoes spawned in Tuscaloosa bore down and were predicted to make a direct pass through my neighborhood in Homewood, a little suburb just south of Birmingham. For the first time since I’ve lived here, we moved down to the basement to ride things out. It was only about twenty minutes later that it was all over–the storm passed north of us. I went out to survey the situation and found a library book, The Funny Baby, in the front yard. It was from the Alberta Elementary library, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Tuscaloosa is about fifty miles to the southwest. The storm carried this book all the way here and deposited it on our lawn. I’ll send what remains of it (the binding and the front and back cover) back to Alberta Elementary, and say a prayer that the kid checking it out had weathered the storm okay. That’s the Nature of Mother, when it comes to the weather here in Alabama.