Storm Watch

Published 3:32 pm Thursday, November 1, 2012

I've been a storm watcher all my life.

It began about the time I was three – old enough to point at the sky and exclaim, “Look – lightening!”

A grandmother who read clouds like most people read the newspaper fueled my fascination with weather. Grandma James and I wiled away countless summer afternoons with necks craned toward the heavens. We made up stories – our own sky's the limit soap opera – using the cloud formations that reeled across the limitless expanse of sky that was our stage.

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“Look, there's Jimmy Durante,” Grandma would say.

“There's Kate Smith,” I giggled as a portly cloud with outstretched arms entered stage left.

When storm clouds rolled in, however, it was serious business. Storm watching wasn't entertainment for us – we lived in the part of the Midwest known as “Tornado Alley.”

When I was ten, a tornado hit our town of Hickman Mills, Missouri. Like Hurricane Sandy, this was a monster storm with wind speeds of 300 miles an hour – well over a Category 5.

I remember watching the sky that night as the storm approached. My mother grabbed my little brother and headed for the cellar while my father rushed around opening and closing windows (something about the vacuum produced by tornadoes). Then he followed my mother downstairs. In the confusion they completely overlooked me. I had slipped outside for a better look at the storm.

Oblivious to the danger, I watched as the ominous black funnel, nearly a mile wide, rolled across the fields. Fortunately, my father called to me from the stairwell, and I went to the cellar, too. In the awful silence that followed the roar of the wind, we emerged to a world forever changed. Familiar landmarks were gone – as were the lives of 39 people in our town, including two neighbors who lived down the road.

When my older sister and her husband finally made it through the debris to my grandmother's house, they were relieved to see her face in their flashlight beam.

“Come on in and have some coffee,” she beckoned.

Born in 1873 before electricity became a part of everyday life, my grandmother wasn't fazed by the lack of it. Holding her flashlight aloft she led the way through the darkened house to the kitchen. But the kitchen wasn't there anymore. An unexpected view of the sky where walls once stood offered mute testimony to the power of the storm.

Recalling that storm now, I'll admit that I experience some apprehension when a hurricane is aimed in our direction. Hurricanes, you see, are hard for Midwesterners to take. We tend to measure storms in minutes, not days. Our storms have come and gone in the time it takes folks in a hurricane's path to go to the hardware store for plywood.

This week has been one of those tense waiting times for everyone along the Mid-Atlantic coast. Every night for the past week, the evening news featured footage of hurricane preparations. In Sandy's case, the affected area covered almost a thousand miles.

While we didn't board up any windows at Elam, we did stock up on dog and cat food, and more importantly – kitty litter. I picked the last of the beans in the garden, and my spouse bought gas for the generator. There was nothing left to do but sit and wait it out – or more precisely, wait for the lights to go out.

Fortunately, that didn't happen, and this time around we were spared the inconvenience of a prolonged power outage, not to mention downed trees and other storm-related damage.

Things were different when Isabel barreled onto the Mid-Atlantic coast nine years ago and headed through central Virginia. We spent the better part of that day and a night hunkered down inside. Isabel, it seemed, was a storm with a life of its own. Wind came in bursts as Isabel took a deep breath and then blew again, even harder. Most of the day I watched out the window as towering oaks on either side of the house bowed to the relentless wind. No one knew what we would find when the sun came up.

Fortunately, Isabel didn't tarry. The next morning brought a beautiful dawn, and while the ground was littered with debris, none of the trees around the house appeared to be damaged.

I was on the way to feed the goats when I spotted the first root ball – just 50 yards on the other side of the barn a massive oak lay on the ground. Then I saw another and another – in all 20 trees were down. Only a tornado traveling alongside the hurricane could have caused such destruction. A stone's throw to the east, and we would have been in its path.

Still numb from the thought of our close call, I walked back inside just as the phone rang. It was a neighbor asking about damage.

No trees on the house or barn, I reported, animals were fine, and we were fine.

“Do you have power?” the neighbor asked.

“Yes,” I reported to a puzzled neighbor who was without electricity just as we were.

As my grandmother pointed out to me years ago, storm watchers know that real power has nothing to do with lights or kilowatts. Storms always point to a higher power, and that is what keeps us safe when storms rage.

Ask any storm veteran – without a doubt they can show you where to find it.