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Next Week's Column: Tornadoes Suck


I once photographed a funnel cloud. (That’s cloud, mind you, not funnel cake, which is much easier to photograph.) It wasn’t the greatest picture – in fact, you needed a magnifying glass to make it out. I didn’t have a zoom lens, and I was right where a person should be during a tornado: Away.

Being on storm watch was my excuse for being there. Say, why are firefighters given the job of watching for storms? It’s not like we’re going to put them out, and a twister can suck up a fire truck as easily as any other vehicle. Considering tornadoes have been known to drive straw through solid walls, I’m not sure a helmet’s much of an advantage.

Still, we’re the emergency services, and if a tornado isn’t an emergency, I’m not sure what is. There are also police, ham radio operators, and emergency management people out there, doing the same thing. They stay out to watch, give warning, and deal with the aftermath, all of which can be pretty nasty.

We also have storm chasers. Some collect scientific data, to better understand, prepare for, and warn about severe weather. Some just like to take pictures, to better understand why they’re nuts.

Then there’s the prairie dog syndrome. That’s when somebody makes a loud noise in one of those cubicle filled offices, and everyone else pokes their head over the cubicle walls to see what’s going on. This is normally harmless. Few office workers have had a straw driven through their skull when they peak over the wall. Almost none have been sucked into the air and found two days later in the next county.

On the other hand, we invest a great deal of money in warning systems, so the citizens know when to walk out into the yard and stand in the open, like so much twister fodder They should be scrambling for cover, and staying there.

I understand it. There’s a stark, violent beauty in severe weather, especially something as amazing as a tornado. I’m sure that’s been the thought of many people, right up until their final words: “Uh oh.” Not really quote worthy.

Not justifiable, either. I suspect they don’t let you into Heaven if the TV broadcasts a tornado warning, the sirens go off, and you die after running outside to see.
For the sake of those who are smart enough to take shelter, here are some tips:

The first smart thing is to invest in a NOAA Weather Radio. Well, the smart thing is to move to western South Dakota, which not only has a low tornado risk, but is also the only state that’s never had a recorded earthquake. Or hurricane, which I suppose goes without saying. They get blizzards, though, so never mind.

Get the radio with the battery backup, and the tone-alert feature. When a warning’s issued, a tone triggers the radio even if the audio’s turned off. Don’t you wish your favorite song could do that? Like a smoke detector, all you have to do is keep the batteries fresh, and it’ll get your attention no matter what you’re doing, unless you’re doing it somewhere else.

You should know where you are. Seriously. You’d be surprised how many people don’t have a grasp of local geography, but Watches and Warnings are issued based on county and town locations. You do know the difference between a Watch and a Warning, right? Right?


A Watch means conditions are right for severe weather to form, but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s “Uh oh”. A Warning means severe weather has broken out, so instead of “uh oh” you say something else, which often begins with “Oh” and has a variety of endings, mostly four lettered.

What do you do when a tornado has been sighted in your area?

Go right away to your predetermined shelter. You know, the one you determined ahead of time. That one.


Okay, go determine a shelter, in the lowest level of the building. If there’s no basement, you should have moved, but it’s a bit late for that now. Use a smaller room, especially a walk-in closet, or a bathroom. The bathroom might be necessary if you actually hear a tornado coming. Windows are a no-no because, hey – glass. Ever been cut? Now multiply that by a thousand.

Get under a piece of sturdy furniture. Okay, go buy a piece of sturdy furniture, then get under it. Protect yourself with cushions, pillows, huge piles of clothing, pets, family members, strangers you pulled in off the street. Flying debris does a lot of damage to soft tissue, so don’t spend time worrying about why the “s” in debris is silent, just take shelter.
If you’re in a mobile home, I really feel for you. But that doesn’t help, so be somewhere else. Believe it or not, a low lying area like a ditch is better protection than a mobile home or a car. With ditches you want to watch for flash flooding, but I’ve seen that inside a house.

If you’ve been in the military – dig a hole.

In a public building, the basement’s still the best bet – next best is an inside hallway, bathroom or closet. This is not the time to worry about whether it’s the men’s or lady’s room. People will understand.

If you’re outside, get inside. Unless inside’s a mobile home. Otherwise, the ditch is right over there.

The problem with outrunning a tornado in a vehicle comes when the twister’s moving at 70 mph and you’re driving into heavy rain, hail, stop lights, and other idiots trying to outrun a tornado. Pull off somewhere away from power lines, and find a building. Unless it’s a trailer. That ditch is still right there, people.

The wind speed of a tornado can be over 300 miles per hour. Don’t assume you can stand there and take pictures in that without harm. The survivors on TV are the lucky ones – they don’t interview the people who tried that and failed, because of the whole “they’re dead” thing. Be smart. Take shelter. Stay alive. I may be a humor columnist, but that’s no joke.


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 6th, 2007 11:55 am (UTC)
it didn't suck
So, you were -- blown away? Hee -- *ahem* -- sorry.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 6th, 2007 11:30 am (UTC)
I've never seen a tornado and have always wanted to ride along with storm chasers (of the scientific variety) to get to see the power of a storm like that up close. However, were one to touch down in my city I don't think I'd be strolling down the sidewalk alone to see what the fuss was all about ;)
Apr. 6th, 2007 11:58 am (UTC)
I'd be lying if I claimed I didn't want to see more storms, myself. But as you say, I don't want to see one in my town; I've become very protective over the years. I'd also like to hit the road with the storm chasers someday ... in fact, one of the novels I'm trying to sell is titled "Storm Chaser", and chronicles the differences between a wandering weather photographer and a state trooper with that very protective instinct I mentioned.
Apr. 6th, 2007 11:38 am (UTC)
Despite the serious topic, I really enjoyed the funny bits... :)
Great read, as always!
Apr. 6th, 2007 11:59 am (UTC)
It's a delicate balancing act, trying to inject humor into so serious a subject. I'll probably manage to make somebody mad, but we'll see.
Apr. 6th, 2007 01:09 pm (UTC)
As per usual, you made me smile. And laugh. And think, which is the great challenge. You make me very glad I'm not from, or living in, tornado country. Then again, there was a tornado in the town where I was born last Spring. In Connecticut. Damn climate change...
Apr. 7th, 2007 07:17 am (UTC)
Historically, there isn't a state in the Union that hasn't experience tornadoes ... although, of course, some see a lot more than others. We're only on the edge of "Tornado Alley", and manage to see our share.

Connecticut? Dude, are you from Star's Hollow? :-)
Apr. 7th, 2007 01:30 am (UTC)
Protect yourself with cushions, pillows, huge piles of clothing, pets, family members, strangers you pulled in off the street.

*spittake* BWAHAHAHAHA!

Damn, you're good. An excellent teaching lesson and a LOL funny article rolled into one! Go, you!
Apr. 7th, 2007 06:22 am (UTC)
Say, that's what I was going for! *grin* Thanks -- this is the part where I blush.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 7th, 2007 10:50 am (UTC)
I believe your cyclones put a different spin on the whole thing. (Um, 'cause you're down south and they spin a different direction ... never mind.)

Boy, we're having some pun now. :-)

A tornado is about the worst weather you can have ... which is exactly why I joke about it. Firehouse humor, and all ...
Apr. 16th, 2007 07:09 pm (UTC)
You could be famous in Warwickshire
I really liked this. Would you mind if I used it with one of my classes? I need to prepare them for an exam in which they compare two treatments of the same topic and discuss what is fact and what is opinion. This is an excellent companion-piece to official government websitese.

We don't get a lot of tornadoes in teh English Midlands, though there was a good one twenty-five miles away two years ago.
Apr. 17th, 2007 12:50 am (UTC)
Re: You could be famous in Warwickshire
By all means, use it with my blessing! It's very much a pleasure to share my work with anyone and everyone. Whether American humor translates is going to have to be your decision ... Just let me know how it goes.

I remember the Birmingham tornado -- which I guess does tell the story about how seldom they strike over there.
Apr. 17th, 2007 07:16 pm (UTC)
Re: You could be famous in Warwickshire
Thank you! They've enjoyed it so far - we've analysed your use of litotes and minor sentences amongst other interesting details! Tomorrow we'll look at sentence structure and other rhetorical devices. It's good to have something they enjoy to teach textual analysis with. I have avoided explaining exactly how I came across your article. *g*

A friend of mine was in a hair salon three streets away from the Brum tornado and was highly miffed that she missed it all. Yes, nobody here would have any idea of what the sensible action would be.
Apr. 18th, 2007 09:56 am (UTC)
Maybe I'll come to Warwickshire for an Ozma convention someday
litotes? *scrambles for the dictionary* Say -- I do that, don't I?

Let them know, once you've finished studying, that I've been known to deliberately screw up sentance structure for flow and/or comic effect. Plus, I'm aware of my problem with run-on sentances, and I'm working on it. :-)
Apr. 18th, 2007 05:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Maybe I'll come to Warwickshire for an Ozma convention someday
I thought you'd be impressed by your skills! These are sixteen-year-olds and they are expected to analyse rhetorical devices, paragraph structure, use of facts and opinions - lots of exciting stuff. Extra credit for fancy-sounding terminology. And, yes, we looked at non-standard sentence structure - much speculation about the use of asterisks in one-word paragraphs!

They enjoyed the piece and it was really useful to prove that they can find these techniques even in writing without twenty-five word sentences and ubiquitous polysyllables...

The trickiest thing? We had to look up what a funnel cake is. That joke fell flat.
Apr. 18th, 2007 10:02 pm (UTC)
I have mad skills
I'm impressed that people admire my skills, which maybe isn't the same thing. The truth is -- and I've found this in fanfiction, too -- I often have no idea I've hit on a particular theme, or thrown in some neat little technique, until it's pointed out to me. Either I'm a natural born writer, or very lucky.

Meanwhile, I'm outrageously happy about this, for some reason. I guess it's because of how impressed I would have been to meet the author of a story I read in English class -- they always seemed distant to me, like gods writing from on high. The idea that someone else is now reading my stuff in class pleases me to no end.

As for funnel cakes -- *ahem*. Truth be told, I don't know exactly what they are myself. I just know the name and that you can buy them at fairs in the Midwest. I'm a humbug. Pay no attention to that man behind the keyboard ...

(Please tell your kids that last part!)
Apr. 18th, 2007 11:01 pm (UTC)
Teens respect your skillz
I suspect that is true of many writers - they have a good ear for what works and don't stop to analyse it. That's why so much of the theory of how to teach writing is radically unsound.

I'm glad you're pleased - they genuinely enjoyed it. I will tell them about the funnel cakes. We decided that they were intrinsically much the same as jalebi, an Indian sweetmeat quite familiar to Coventry kids. And boy do I mean "sweet" - they are soaked in sugar syrup and are usually a virulent yellow or orange colour.

Apr. 19th, 2007 06:33 am (UTC)
Re: Teens respect your skillz
Holy cow -- it looks like something out of a science fiction movie!

I've read a lot of books about writing, and the ones most useful to me were by writers who always hastened to point out that what works for them doesn't work for everyone. Once you get the basics of language down, writing is much more of an art than a science.
May. 17th, 2007 04:12 am (UTC)
I'm, of course, playing catch up. I enjoyed this column - informative and funny! Yesterday they sounded the warning siren in Bremen - first time I've heard one in many years, but it's a sound you don't forget. My sister told me later it was for a thunderstorm warning, not a tornado warning, but I didn't know that and we went to the basement anyway. As I was reading, I was reviewing the locations of ditches on 331 between here and Mishawaka. *g*
May. 17th, 2007 07:33 am (UTC)
It's always best to err on the side of caution. I heard there was a tornado warning in Marshall County -- isn't that you, or just on the other side of you?

We had some seriously powerful straight line winds that brought some trees down, cut power and caused some other damage here and there.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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