Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Storm Season 2011-Tragedy, Awe, and Guilt

The year was 1953. The National Weather Service was not allowed to use the word "tornado" in forecasts, for the fear that it might cause people to panic. Tornado Warnings were a figment of the imagination. It was the year that would spur the astounding advancements in tornado research and forecasting.

5/11/53-Waco, Texas F5: 114 dead
6/8/53- Flint, Michigan F5: 116 dead
6/9/53- Worcester, Mass. F4: 94 dead

I remember reading books growing up stating that the days of single tornadoes killing over 100 people were over. Up until this year, I believed them.

4/25-4/28/11- Southeastern Super Outbreak: 322 dead
5/22/11-Joplin, MO EF5: 134 dead; 8th deadliest tornado in U.S. history
2011 storm season so far: 522 dead; most in 1 year since 1936

The events of this year have affected me emotionally. I remember seeing the incredible radar signature of the Tuscaloosa tornado. So I decided to pull up the live streaming coverage of the ABC affiliate in Tuscaloosa/Birmingham. The first image I saw was one of the tower cams in Tuscaloosa showing the violent tornado in the center of the city. The tower cam that was there to show traffic jams was showing a tornado tearing up the heart of the city, while the TV meteorologist did his best to keep his composure. He did an amazing job, by the way, and probably saved countless lives.

The next event that will be seared in my brain is Joplin. This time, there was a threat of tornadoes, but it didn't seem to be a threat of violent tornadoes, at least in my opinion. The tornado went from funnel to monster in seconds, right on the outskirts of the city. A warning meterologist's worst nightmare. I was watching the Weather Channel as on-air personality Mike Bettes, who was chasing the storm, arrived in Joplin minutes after the tornado hit. He had been on what the Weather Channel was dubbing "The Great Tornado Hunt." As he went on-air live, he broke down. As the camera panned, there was utter devastation as far as the eye could see. I watched as this unfolded, live. Right before he broke down, he uttered the words, "We were just out here doing research." I broke down with him. An hour previous he had been admiring the work of Mother Nature. Then he was confronted with the absolute hell that these storms can cause.

I have been asked before, "How can you like tornadoes?" Like is a strong word. Fascination, awe, respect, and wonderment are more appropriate, and also the reason why this year has affected me so much. While watching videos of tornadoes, I'm usually in "weather-mode." I'm amazed at how different each of these storms can be, and at what the atmosphere can produce. The realization of lives affected comes after the fascination. No matter how much my wife confirms the fact that I have no control over the weather, I feel guilt for the initial excitement of seeing the tornado.

This guilt really hit home for me during the Oklahoma tornado outbreak last Tuesday. From the beginning of the El Reno-Piedmont tornado, I was truly in awe of it. It was massive. Other storms that were trying to interfere with the storm's mesocyclone were just sucked up into it. I knew it was going to be bad. Doppler radar was showing maxed-out red and maxed-out green (winds blowing towards and away from the radar site), right next to each other. Radar reflectivity, which is used to determine rain intensity and hail sizes, was showing bright red and purple in the tornado. This was actally debris that the radar was showing, and this radar signature was headed for NW Oklahoma County, where my family and friends live.

Minutes before friends and children gathered in the underground storm shelter that close friends so generously shared with us, I talked with my 2 year old daughter. Our earlier test run had not gone so well. Anna cried even before going into the shelter. So I thought it was best to talk to her. I told her that it was going to thunder. She liked that, since she enjoyed the thunder the night before. I told her we were going into a fun tunnel, and we were all going to be safe and happy. She nodded at me. I then asked if she could be good for Mommy and Daddy, and be a big girl. She nodded again. At the same time, I was thinking about what would happen if our friends' house was hit. I was truly scared. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to protect her and Liz. Little did I know that during this time there was an EF-5 tornado on the ground, the strongest winds on Earth, only a few miles from where I was. And it was ruining lives.

I share this story because it explains where my guilt comes from. At the moment of impact, all tornado victims care about is protecting their loved ones. They don't care about Doppler radar velocities, EF-ratings, or amazing videos. In this day and age, it almost feels like I am "gawking" at other's suffering. I just have to remind myself that without the researchers, storm chasers, and meterologists who get adrenaline rushes every time they see a tornado, our warning system would not be what it is today.

Sorry for the long, rambling post. I'm not looking for sympathy for my guilt. I just needed a method and forum to vent this. It's been a roller coaster ride the past month or two.


not so zen momma said...

You are a good writer, Nate. Thanks for communicating your thoughts, a lot to ponder.

Nathan said...

Thanks for the compliment Brooke.