Thursday, April 28, 2011

I don't think that people who haven't grown up in a tornado prone area know that while tornadoes are a terrifying fact of life, it's extremely rare for one to affect you directly. Tornadoes, for all their destructive power, also rarely become killers. This is because of the sophisticated Doppler radar systems, knowledgeable meteorologists and vast alert systems in place. Also, almost every house in the Midwest, South and severe weather areas have basements or storm cellars. This is why the death toll and number of huge F4 and above tornadoes in the South is really of epic proportion.

I grew up mostly in Kansas, (you know, where Dorothy is from) where severe weather is expected from around May until late September, each season kicking off with a statewide tornado drill. That meant tornado sirens blaring across the city, followed by school bells shrieking as we stood up from our desks and calmly proceeded single file down the hall into a fortified hallway or cellar, then sat in the stuffy, crowded, not well ventilated area with our backs to the wall, heads between our knees and hands crossed over our heads until the all clear bell rang. Usually, within minutes of settling in, someone cut a nasty fart which made waiting for that all clear bell a fucking eternity.

Only once do I remember having to take cover while at school for real, and while I enjoyed the time away from my desk, there was something ominous and scary about knowing that at any minute, the sky could deliver one hell of a sucker punch to where we were and there wasn't a damn thing we could do about it except hope the building holds together. During that tornado warning, we sat in a hot, humid and cramped hallway as teachers tried to keep the chain-reaction freak out from busting loose. That's when one kid freaks out and sets everyone else off. At the first sign of panic, the teachers whisked the possible light to our freak-out fuse away until he or she could get their emotions back in check.

When I was in fourth grade, our school music teacher went on a dinner theater show boat called the Whippoorwill. When the boat, loaded with about 60 passengers, left shore on Pomona Lake, the skies were clear with only a hint of darkening way off in the distance. However, storms can form quickly in the Great Plains. Before anyone knew what was happening, a small tornado formed and made a direct hit on the boat, capsizing it. My music teacher, her mother, nine-year-old-daughter and 12 other people were trapped inside and drowned. The daughter's body was found a couple days later. That year, even with that tragedy, only fifty-eight people were killed by tornadoes in the entire United States. This storm system of the last couple days has taken 300 lives, most of them in one state. The tornado that hit the Whippoorwill wasn't even an F1 tornado. The Alabama tornadoes have been F4 and F5s, some a mile wide.

To put it in perspective, an F0 tornado did this to the Whippoorwill. This is after it was towed back to shore.

At the time, I was terrified of tornadoes. And that incident affirmed every fear that I had of the big swirling finger of nature pointing down from the sky directly at me, ready to flick me across town like a gnat. Except, that time it wasn't me. It was another nine-year-old girl.

Though we'd heard about it over the weekend, I didn't know what to do when the reality of my music teacher being dead cemented when her music class remained quiet and empty on Monday. I didn't understand the behavior that surrounded death and didn't know how to act at school when the teachers sat us down to talk about it. Was I supposed to cry, walk around with my head down? Have something I needed to talk about? Pretend I was feeling something that I didn't understand? Be careful of laughing too loud during recess?

Eventually, we got a new music teacher, Mrs. Kuhns, a crotchety, oddball woman obsessed with the musical "Oliver" because she'd been in a local stage production of the classic. Any way that she could fit in a story of her playing one of the boys in the musical, she would, and some kid, believe it or not it wasn't me, would say, "You mean you didn't get the lead?" Unlike Mrs. Wright, Mrs. Kuhns, to put in nicely, didn't possess the charisma and gift of teaching music to kids. Instead, she ruled the class with harsh looks, words and humiliation. We hated her, and let it show. But, how does one come into a class that had their teacher killed by a tornado? Certainly, not the way she did. But, that's a story for another time.

You can learn about the Whippoorwill disaster here and here.