Tornadoes, memories, and gaps
Originally posted on LiveJournal in four entries over May 9-21, 2006. (I was on LJ from 2005 to 2011 and am presently going through looking for lyrics and longer-form stuff.) The F2 tornado struck near where I lived then in Waco in the early morning of May 6, 2006.
The first time I remember seeing my father crying, I was nine years old. We were living in a trailer house then, out on Spring Street on the edge of Marfa. He had been on the phone in the living room; my mom was on the extension in the guest bedroom/sewing room/office, just off the living room. I think I knew that it was my sister Pat calling from Arkansas, and noticed that the time was unusual — a bit after 5 p.m. The national news either was about to come on or had just started. Dad put down the phone and broke down sobbing. I don’t remember how I found out why — likely Mom told me some.
The rest I shortly thereafter got from Walter Cronkite.
It was March 29, 1976, and a tornado had just struck my sister’s hometown, Cabot, Arkansas, killing five people and demolishing downtown. No one in my family was hurt, Mom had reassured me, and I wondered, then, what had made Dad cry. Much later I found out my sister and her children had not merely seen the tornado but been only feet away — Pat bodily tossing Brownie Scouts into the shelter of the Second Baptist Church because the air pressure differential was so great they couldn’t walk in. My nephews — ages 3 years and 22 months, respectively — suffered for years from what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder, reacting to every thunderstorm that blew up as if they were going to have to run for their lives again.
I’m not sure whether it was some sort of empathy for what they had been through, or fear/respect for anything that could make Dad cry, or just another outgrowth of habitual worrying paranoia — but I started paying close attention to the weather, and especially to tornadoes.
We didn’t get any in or near Marfa while I was there — the surrounding mountains made a natural stormbreak; we certainly got rain and lightning, but no twisters. (I do wonder — it only just occurred to me: That was the same year that Mom overrode Dad’s objections and bought a house. I suddenly wonder how much her daughter living through a tornado put an edge on Mom’s already strong desire not to live in a trailer home…)
Friday night [May 5, 2006] I was in the Waco Tribune-Herald newsroom alternating between working wire and checking the National Weather Service and Weather Underground websites. I did have a (sort of) work excuse — if there was a big storm somewhere it could change the Local & Texas section front. We’d had a minor tornado (as much as any tornado can be said to be minor) the previous Friday night/Saturday morning — several buildings wrecked, no people hurt but two horses from the Baylor University equestrian program killed when their barn was wrecked. That twister had sprung out of nowhere — no warning, no sirens, no signs on radar (there was some argument for most of that Saturday whether it had actually been a tornado). I don’t think there was even a severe-storm warning on the storm. In my part of town it had been a spectacular lightning-and-thunder show, and not much else. I didn’t even know there had been a tornado until late on Saturday afternoon or evening when I finally checked the Trib website. This time I was paying more attention.
For most of the evening, though, all the activity was to the west and south of us. It wasn’t until 9:25 p.m. that Waco was even included in a watch zone, and the storms were still three counties away.
I’m a bit fuzzy on the timing of what happens next. By 11 — about the time I got my pages all laid out — the line of storms had started to reach our area. The storm that was exciting the most attention was to our south and west, in Mills County heading for the western fringe of Fort Hood. The tornado warning for that one was sounded at 10:44 p.m. There was this other storm cell heading our direction from the west, but at first it didn’t look as though it would do anything more than rain loudly on us.
I probably left work around 11:15. I remember that there was a lot of lightning. I think I went straight home, not stopping at the grocery store as I often do. When I got home my neighbor was standing on the areaway, smoking; we talked briefly about the weather, then I went inside. The first thing I did was feed the cat, because he was being insistent about it; the second thing was to go into the bedroom to turn off the weather radio, which was still beeping from the tornado watch back at 9:30. The third thing was to power down and unplug the Mac; I don’t, usually — everything’s on surge suppressors — but there had been a lot of lightning…
And I turned on the news. They were going pretty much full bore on that storm to the south, but as I put dinner in the microwave they were starting to pay attention to the storm heading for us. The Channel 25 meteorologist was calling it the second-biggest threat on the radar. By the time dinner was out of the microwave and on the plate it had been promoted.
I’m not sure of what time I got home; what happened before the sirens started, what happened after. I remember eating dinner — Marie Callender’s fettucine Alfredo, with chicken and broccoli — while standing in front of the TV watching the Channel 25 meteorologist talk about the shear markers showing up on radar just across the county line, and starting to eat faster as it became clear I might very soon have to put the food down and head for shelter. (I also remember wondering in the back of my head whether eating just before a possible tornado was actually such a good idea…)
Pretty much the moment they called it on TV I went into the bedroom to catch the weather radio as it went off. I think there was about 10 or 15 seconds’ difference. I don’t remember taking the plate in with me; either that was when I set it down on top of the microwave — or just before I got it out of the microwave and started eating like a madman. Obviously I’d prefer to think I didn’t spend valuable time while the sirens were going off eating…
BULLETIN – EAS ACTIVATION REQUESTED
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE FORT WORTH TX
1220 AM CDT SAT MAY 6 2006
THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN FORT WORTH HAS ISSUED A
* TORNADO WARNING FOR…
CENTRAL MCLENNAN COUNTY IN NORTH CENTRAL TEXAS
* UNTIL 115 AM CDT
* AT 1216 AM CDT…NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE METEOROLOGISTS DETECTED A
DEVELOPING TORNADO 7 MILES NORTHWEST OF MCGREGOR…MOVING EAST AT
* THE TORNADO IS EXPECTED TO BE NEAR…
WOODWAY BY 1240 AM
WACO BY 1245 AM
BEVERLY HILLS BY 1250 AM
BELLMEAD AND LACY-LAKEVIEW BY 1255 AM
NORTHCREST BY 100 AM
HALLSBURG BY 115 AM
TAKE COVER IN A BASEMENT…OR ON THE LOWEST FLOOR OF YOUR HOME IN AN
INTERIOR CLOSET OR BATHROOM. USE BLANKETS OR PILLOWS FOR COVER.
IN ADDITION TO TORNADOES…LARGE HAIL TO GOLFBALL SIZE AND DAMAGING
WINDS TO 60 MPH ARE LIKELY WITH THIS STORM.
A TORNADO WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 500 AM SATURDAY MORNING FOR
NORTH CENTRAL TEXAS.
So I had around 20 minutes before things got really hairy. I called the Trib newsroom first thing, to make sure the copy editors still there knew about the warning (I don’t think the sirens had gone off just yet) and got them headed down to the room designated for shelter (there was some debate afterward, I later found out — that room, the large meeting room downstairs, has an outside wall (though no windows). One of the maintenance chiefs says the safest place is right under the press — which rationally might be so, but I’d still be nervous).
Next I considered the fact that I was in an upstairs apartment. Running downstairs into the pouring rain and pounding on the door of a neighbor I barely knew (and didn’t know whether they were home)? If they were home and willing to take me in, it would be much safer; if they weren’t home, how much time would I have wasted finding out they weren’t home before taking my own measures? And there was Dinsdale, my cat, to consider: wrestling him into the cat carrier, getting him downstairs, don’t know how he’ll react to their two cats or the other cats to him —
Other neighbor — the one across the areaway I’d been chatting with an hour earlier about the weather. Did she know about the warning? I went out, pounded on her door. After a moment, she appeared, clutching a pillow to herself. She knew. (The sirens were going off by then.)
Back inside, deciding I’ll stick it out in here. Into the bedroom, grab the boombox — note that the antenna’s busted, damn — look at the mattress, decide there’s no way I’m going to be able to wrestle that into the bathroom. Retrieve Dinsdale from under the bed. Dinsdale, it turns out, most emphatically does not want to be held. I get him into the bathroom and close the door. Back to bedroom, grab pillows. Back to bathroom, open door trying not to let Dinsdale out, toss pillows through door, close door. Couch: Grab cushions off couch. Open door, throw cushions through, close door. Try to remember if I have a regular radio other than the boombox with the busted antenna. Not where I can find it easily, and probably without batteries. Gah. Grab a bottled water to take in with me, for no sensible reason I can now discern.
In the bathroom, Dinsdale has settled in the bathtub already. I get in, trying to arrange pillows around me and cushions on top; discover it would be a better idea if I got into the tub the other way, without the faucet jabbing me in the back. (Which tells you how often I use the tub as a tub, rather than as a shower stall.) Rearrange things, turn on the radio, find no station on either FM or AM not playing either music or a syndicated talk show. (This was also the subject of some discussion afterward. Seems there were no humans manning radio stations at that hour. The arrangements they had made for bad weather failed when — but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
Get out, head into the living room, turn the TV volume up as loud as it will go, head back into the bathroom leaving the door open a crack (Dinsdale has settled down by now and is sitting calmly in the bathtub cushion-cave. He just wants to be where I am, and all is well). Around 12:40 now. Sit in the bathtub, trying to work out how to arrange myself so my head is under cushions and not sitting on top of a nice hard bathtub lip if something falls on me. My heart is beating faster, but I’m not that scared. Not really, really scared.
Not until the lights go out.
For most of us, it’s fairly easy to thumb your nose at the weather. You’re inside, nice and dry. The air is the temperature you want it to be, you have lights, you have the Internet, you have TV — you have power. Life is good.
You have power. All that air sitting on top of you has more power, but as long as that power isn’t focused in your direction, it’s easy to forget just how unbalanced the equation actually is. It’s easy to maintain the illusion that your power is greater.
Until the lights go out.
They flickered, stayed on a moment, went out. I fumbled in the dark for the radio (a flashlight! Why hadn’t I brought a flashlight? There was one on the sink, I knew, but a very weak one), tried tuning stations again, both bands — no luck. A couple of minutes later, the lights came back on, and I somewhat foolishly ventured out of the bathroom just far enough to turn the TV back on. Snow — the station was off the air. I didn’t feel like waiting around long enough to flip channels — I turned the TV off and headed back to the bathroom. Just about then the power went out again, and this time stayed off.
When you have lights on, you don’t notice the lightning so much. When you have the TV turned up full blast, you don’t notice the thunder. When you have neither, and you’re huddled with a cat under sofa cushions in the bathtub (will they be enough? Should I have tried to get the mattress in after all? Will I only crack my head like an eggshell against the porcelain?) — you notice. I could hear the hail thudding against the roof, I could hear the rain crackling against the windows, I could hear the wind pounding everything. (Call up audio memory of freight train, compare: Does it sound like that yet?) I could see lightning, and lightning, and lightning, in slivers — framed top-and-bottom by the cushions and the bathtub, left-and-right by the bathroom door. There was too much else going on for me to hear the thunder much…
I could hear the weather radio going off in the bedroom (why hadn’t I brought that in with me? Hell, what’s there left for it to warn me about?) It was hot under the cushions; sweat was starting to pour off me. Dinsdale wormed out from behind my knees, to in front of my chest (I’d gone into as much of a fetal position as I could assume while in the bathtub) and poked his head out — still calm, just curious. I pulled him back, stroked him, more to calm myself than him.
I was in the tub — 15 minutes? 20? At some point it just got too uncomfortable under the cushions and I sat up, finally letting Dinsdale jump out. The wind had gone down some. Enough? Did that sound like what a thunderstorm would normally sound like if the power weren’t out? My normal all-clear would be the power coming back on, but the power wasn’t coming back on. Eventually I decided to risk it.
It was still raining like all get-out, but the wind had calmed enough that I felt safe making some quick supply ventures. First item of business: I knew I had a battery-powered lantern over by the Mac. I felt my way though to there and got it. Next: Into the bedroom to shut off the weather-radio alarm. Oh, yes, that was why I hadn’t brought it into the bathroom with me: It had a battery backup (thus the alarm going off), but the power cord was permanently attached in back. I spent a few entertaining seconds working out which outlet behind what it was plugged into, then got it unplugged. I also grabbed the pocketwatch and checked the time: It was about 1 a.m. now.
Back in the bathroom with the loot, hanging the lantern from the shower-curtain rod. Listening to the weather radio, I remembered the second reason I hadn’t brought it in with me: It wasn’t telling me much new, just cycling through the voice-synthesized watches and warnings. (One of the few new items: That last alert had turned out to be a flash-flood warning.)
I waited in or near the bathroom until about 1:15, when the tornado warning was set to expire. At some point shortly after that I stepped out onto the areaway. It was still raining hard. The whole complex was dark; I could see some people wandering around. I hallo-ed out to them and got no response — from them; my neighbor, however, came out when she heard me. We talked for a bit, poked heads out as far as we could without getting wet, looked at the fallen tree limbs. There didn’t seem to be any damage to buildings that we could see, no broken glass or anything. She showed me the hail damage to the houseplants she had out on the areaway, holes punched through leaves; the hailstones we found were dime-sized or pea-sized, but rapidly melting — hard to say how big they’d been when they fell. We could see someone out checking his car for damage.
I intended to walk around looking for damage when the rain let up, but it kept raining for the next few hours. People with normal sleep schedules started giving up and going to bed. I called various people I knew from work to see if they were all right; one co-worker said the station I had been watching had reported winds over 80 mph near them just before going off the air. I called the city editor to let him know this and also to tell him the power was still out where I was (he was on his way out to go check on damage around the city). At some point I turned the backlighting on the cell phone screen off to conserve power (there was still enough lightning that I was nervous about using the landline).
Every so often I’d walk back out onto the areaway to watch the rain. Every so often I’d wonder when the rain was going to stop, start to go check the radar, remind myself that I couldn’t. At some point in there I was practicing the guitar, trying to see how much of “Merlin” I had memorized (for some reason I always have this impulse to play “Merlin” while it’s storming — I can hear the voices coming through the ground, / the spirits that kick old bones around / and the wind picks up again... I usually have lights to read lyrics by when I’m doing it, though). I thought about using the cell phone to send a LiveJournal post, remembered I hadn’t set that up (still need to do that), tried sending an email via phone to a friend in Houston — the only person who might be up at that hour whose e-mail I could remember off the top of my head. The phone gave me an error message, though. And I kept looking at the watch.
Around 3:20 I looked at the watch and sleepily tried to calculate how long the power had been out. That, it turned out, was a good time to do that, because that’s when the power came back on. Lights: check. Air conditioner: very check. Reset the clocks that needed resetting (the bedroom clock also has a battery backup, though it turns out to have gone about 10 minutes fast during that time (I still haven’t reset it — it’s one of those that sets back by setting all the way around forward)). Turn the TV on — the channel I had been watching, channel 25, was still off the air (it turned out that I’d’ve been able to watch it if I had had cable, but the transmitter was still out), switched between channel 10, which had people sitting around a table in the lobby or break room or someplace because that’s where the emergency lighting was (with occasional jury-rigged playing of videotape), and channel 6, which was showing nothing but radar with a weatherman giving voiceover. (Yup, still raining.) I got the Mac back up and talking to the outside world and posted a brief entry to LJ. After a while I debated whether to wait for dawn (about an hour away) and reconnoiter, or go to sleep. Sleep won.
Me in 2020: I did eventually go out and look. Here’s a gallery of photos that I took. The biggest damage was to a Coca-Cola distribution center about four or five blocks from my apartment; the building took a lot of damage and some of the trailers in the fenced-off parking were overturned. Nearby store windows were blown in and businesses were still without power several hours afterward. The National Weather Service evaluation afterward based on a damage survey put the tornado at the lower end of F2 on the Fujita scale.
Other parts of town were hit by straight-line winds from a phenomenon called a rear-flank downdraft. My complex got away with just a few tree limbs down, but the complex next door, the opposite direction from the tornado, had its roof torn off, and the building green-tagged by the city as uninhabitable.