What Weather Event Scares You the Most?
The author stands before an EF2 tornado in Faith, S.D., May 24, 2010.
What weather event scares you the most?
Meteorologists often argue about what's worse: tornadoes, hurricanes or lightning. Some storm chasers insist that lightning is scariest because it strikes without warning. Others argue that hurricanes are more frightening because they can cause so much devastation, and you have to travel hundreds of miles to outrun them. They're good arguments, but I'm not entirely sold.
I grew up in Lincoln, Neb., in the heart of tornado alley. The sounds of tornado sirens were common in spring, but they still sent chills through me every time I heard them. I always imagined a giant tornado emerging from the rain and barreling through our home. Fortunately, that never happened, but that fear led me to obsess over weather. When my friends were all watching cartoons, I was glued to the Weather Channel, humming along to its "Local on the 8s" theme music. I became so consumed with spotting tornadoes that, as soon as I got my first driver's license, I started chasing storms.
Over the next 13 years, I chased about 30 tornadoes, always watching them churn from a safe distance. Nothing could have prepared me for what happened April 15, 2011.
I finished my teaching duties for the day and spotted a tornadic storm on radar traveling through Jackson, Miss. Reports came in through the National Weather Service Chat of total destruction to several neighborhoods in Clinton, Miss., a Jackson suburb. I plotted the storm's course and estimated that it would pass through Scooba, 60 miles south of my location, in two hours and 20 minutes.
After a quick stop for gas and chips, I raced down Highway 45 in my white Nissan Titan. I began seeing the familiar look of a thunderstorm anvil, and a thin veil of clouds signifying intense winds in the upper-atmosphere steering the storm in my direction. I called a colleague to check its status, only to hear more reports of destruction and damage. This was it. A big one was heading my way.
As I rolled into Scooba, I positioned myself in the parking lot of the football stadium at East Mississippi Community College, providing the best possible view among a forest of tall, skinny pine trees. The lightning was horrific. Bolts darted across the horizon. Debris -- roofing shingles and tree branches -- began raining from the sky. The tornado was still 15 miles to my west.
I wanted to get a better view, so I headed west on Highway 16, only to find my friend and fellow storm chaser, Greg, racing over 70 mph in the other direction, honking his horn in a desperate attempt to warn those headed west. Then I saw it less than five miles away: a V-shaped cloud -- presumably a large tornado -- whose base was obstructed by the Mississippi pine. It was the widest tornado I'd ever seen and it had me in its crosshairs.
I wrenched the wheel and made a U-turn. The combination of debris falling from the sky and whirring tornado sirens sent my nerves into high gear. My foot shook as I pressed the gas pedal, racing east toward the Alabama state line. In my rear view mirror, I saw the mile-wide wedge tornado that had just missed Scooba. I saw trees and power lines whipping across the road less than a mile behind me. Inflow winds -- the gusts of warm, humid air fueling to the thunderstorm -- were as strong as I'd ever seen them, easily gusting over 80 mph, bending the trees along highway. For once, a tornado was chasing me.
I sped to a southerly bend in the road and pulled off to the side of a catfish farm, where I had an open view. There, out of harm's way, I watched an EF3 tornado with winds of 150 mph cross the road I'd just driven moments before, snapping every tree in its path. I was in awe.
***Nearly two weeks later, I'd see how a tornado can devastate a town -- in this case, Smithville, Miss., 40 miles from my home. An EF5 tornado killed more than a dozen people. I visited the next day. Half the buildings in Smithville were destroyed, heaped into piles of rubble. Children were left without parents. Parents were left without children. It was devastating.
Tornadoes produce the strongest winds of any weather event. In just a matter of seconds they can rearrange lives and property. I've seen the damage hurricanes can do, too. As a meteorologist, I covered Hurricane Katrina and witnessed the horrific flooding of New Orleans and the storm surge that battered Mississippi's coastline. I've also seen my share of close lightning strikes. But for me, nothing quite rivals the destructive power of a tornado.
To this day, the sound of a tornado siren sets my nerves on edge. Oddly enough, I have no problem standing in a field in a safe position, watching a tornado pass. But in my home, in the dark, and especially when a twister is bearing down on my truck, nothing can match the white-knuckle fear evoked by a powerful tornado.
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