In March, while driving through Kansas on my way to Tennessee, I made an off-hand comment about my childhood obsession with Kansas. Like most little girls, I had an infatuation with The Wizard of Oz. Unlike most little girls, my love of the movie had nothing to do with Dorothy or the ruby slippers. No, I loved The Wizard of Oz because of the tornado scenes. I would spend my childhood pretending I survived horrific storms. Most kids played with Barbie dolls. Me? I played storm survival tactics and watched the tornado scenes from The Wizard of Oz on repeat. When I became bored with Oz, I watched Twister and fantasized that I was Helen Hunt or Bill Paxton hiding in ditches and dodging cows.
The Backstory My obsession with storms began at the age of three. One of my earliest memories is one of me sitting at the kitchen counter having a bowl of cereal. I can remember the light hanging above my head swaying, and I can still hear the sound of the storm alert on the TV. We lived in Michigan at the time, and I know my mom had been through tornado warnings before, but this storm was different. The sky outside our glass door was a pea-green color rotating toward our house, and I could tell by the fear in my mom’s voice that this storm wasn’t the average spring thunderstorm.
I remember that I was scared because my dad wasn’t home. He was in Arizona looking for a job, while my mom had to stay home and take care of my baby sister and me. My grandpa must have known about the storm because he happened to be at our house. This memory is relevant because I remember panicking when we took shelter in the basement because my grandpa had to go outside to roll up his car windows. The tornado eventually took a path of destruction right down the middle of our suburban Detroit street. I don’t remember much else about the storm except that it flooded our basement and ripped the roof off of some of our neighbors’ houses. This storm impacted me and began a life-long obsession with tornados.
More Twisters After the tornado in Michigan, my twister encounters became more frequent. What is strange about the frequency of times I’ve been close to a tornado is that I moved to Arizona shortly after the tornado came down the middle of our street. In Arizona, there aren’t tornados. Arizona has micro bursts, dust devils, and monsoons. Oddly enough, I can recall at least three storms that led to tornados in Arizona, and I was close to each one of them. Later in my life, I had at least four more tornado encounters. I had one in Georgia, one in North Carolina, and even two in Colorado. Regardless, it is just strange that someone who hasn’t ever lived in Tornado Alley has had so many brushes with such violent storms.
Flash forward to March when my family and I were staying in Reagan, Tennessee where Pat’s mom lives. My husband, Pat, was out on the tractor bush-hogging the back of the property. The phone rang, and it was a local alert about a tornado. We turned on the TV, and the news wasn’t saying much about a storm, so we went about our afternoon. It was sunny outside, so we didn’t even worry.
When my phone sent the alert, I went outside to keep an eye on the sky. Clouds were coming in, but it didn’t look threatening in the least bit, but my phone kept buzzing the emergency alert tone, so I thought something had to be up. Given my history of tornados, I sat outside and watched the clouds approach the main house until I began to get worried. I tried to usher Pat off the tractor, but he wanted to keep working. I waved my arm in a circular motion (which to me looked like a twister). Pat thought I was just telling him to wrap it up. He wasn’t concerned because the sky didn’t look bad. Finally, he came close enough to me where I could tell him about the storm. I asked him to get off the tractor and store it in the barn. He laughed at me, and went back to bush-hogging, until finally, I was YELLING, “Get off the tractor! There is a tornado!”
At this point, the sky started to look pretty scary. Being the storm-lover that I am, I stood outside and took pictures of the whole situation until Pat told me to get my butt inside. We told Pat’s mom and Jacqueline to the basement. I don’t think any of us thought a tornado was imminent. We were trying to find a flashlight, grab the puppy, and get to the safe room in the basement. Jacqueline was complaining that she didn’t have time to get her iPhone charger. Pat’s mom was slowly pulling quilts and other items that filled the safe-room out of the safe-room so we could get inside and shut the door. Storms like this don’t happen very often because the safe room was more like a storage room and it wasn’t in a condition for all of us to be comfortable inside.
Not seconds after we got the door (mostly) closed, there was a sound like nothing I’ve ever heard before. It’s wasn’t the noise of a train, but more like 1,000 knives were hitting the metal roof and the side of the house simultaneously. The sound accompanied what I can only describe as the house taking a breath and then exhaling all of the air at one time. The house moved as if it were a set of lungs and not a brick and mortar structure. Once the air was gone, the house inhaled again, and we were left staring at the ceiling in silence.
We sat for a few minutes and didn’t move. Was this the calm before the storm? Was it safe to look outside? After what seemed like forever, Pat and I went upstairs to assess if it was safe for everyone to come out of the safe room. By now, the power was out, and it was eerily quiet. We could see the churning sky in the distance, but it looked calm enough over our house to venture outside.
The Aftermath We knew that a tornado had hit the house. Based on the path of destruction and the direction the clouds had approached the house before the storm hit, we think the storm came diagonally across the side of the house and raced across the front yard. The funnel cloud dropped down and traveled across the front lawn, and retracted seconds before destroying the area around The Martin House (The Martin house is a smaller house on the property that Pat’s grandparents once lived in, and later, his parents lived in the house while they built the larger home). One-hundred-year-old trees lay uprooted on the ground; the house had shimmied off the foundation; the shed and all of its contents were either wrapped around trees or gone altogether.
The next day was a beautiful spring day. It is hard to believe such destruction and chaos tore through the yard not twelve hours before. The damage was surreal, and there would be weeks of repairs ahead for Pat’s mom, both emotionally and structurally. We wandered the property surveying the damage and taking a count of everything that seemed to be missing or damaged. Each time we walked the property, we noticed more destruction. The strangest thing of all was the trees completely uprooted laying on their sides. The tree roots were larger than we were. Over a hundred years of history just lay on the ground juxtaposed against a clear blue sky. It was beautiful and terrible all at the same time.
Later, we would find out that the house that we had taken shelter in received significant damage. Holes filled the siding on the section of the house the tornado grazed. The screws that were holding the metal roof in place were halfway out. It’s scary to think if the twister had moved even a foot closer, the whole house could have been demolished.
More Tornados Call it what you will, but I just believe that there is something in me that attracts tornados. I’ve had far too many experiences and two very close calls with tornados to consider it a coincidence. It is now a joke between my family and friends about the magnetism between me and twisters. Now, when a tornado warning goes off, I am more cautious, and I take the storms more seriously. I don’t think that I will ever joke about tornados in Kansas, or ever wish to see a funnel cloud, even from afar, again.
Post edit: See my post about the tornado while I was camping in my T@B this summer.