Sunday, June 19, 2011

Reflections on the Battle Creek tornado

Trees crashed down on my lane on May 29th in the Battle Creek storm.
With so many people dying down South this spring in the terrible tornadoes, I had told myself to take the storm sirens extra seriously this year. All spring a dread had been creeping over me because I knew as the season advanced the severe weather would head north to where I live in Battle Creek, Michigan.

On May 29th, 2011 my premonition became reality at about 4:30 in the afternoon. The storm sirens went off. This is the warning to seek shelter, but, like most people, I went outside to make an assessment of the sky. Some of my neighbors were doing the same. The day had been warm and heavily overcast, and from the southwest I could see a dark stormy mass approaching. At first, the storm really did not look like a big deal, but then it rushed across Goguac Lake with alarming speed. I looked up and saw an ugly slate-colored sky with white tendrils swirling down like the heads of a hydra diving from the sky.

Over the last couple months my oldest son has been obsessed with weather and we have watched many episodes of Storm Chasers in which the filmmaker tries to film tornadoes up close in his Tornado Intercept Vehicle or TIV. When I looked up and saw the vaporous tentacles of a gargantuan cloud jelly fish descending my first thought was "This looks like the view from the TIV."

Not good. Really not good.

Immediately I went inside to shut the windows. Just that past week I had listened to an engineering professor on a radio chat show explain that the old time advice to open your windows in a tornado is absolutely wrong because it lets the wind get in and push on your house from the inside. With the main level secured I raced upstairs to close those windows and that's when the storm hit. Everything went white outside as the wind vaporized the rain. It looked exactly like films of hurricanes, and I could not see beyond my yard. The power went off immediately. I hustled my sons to the basement where we waited for a tense few minutes while my dog had a panic attack. Through the basement windows I could see very little because of the obscuring whiteness.

When things quieted, I went upstairs, thankful that I still had an upstairs. I must admit that my old little house took what the storm was giving without even a creak. May it always perform so well!

The outside however had been frighteningly transformed. Chewed up pieces of tree leaves plastered the front of my house. My little lane was a bad mess. My old neighborhood has very large trees. Miraculously the two monstrous oaks and two colossal maples around my house were fine, but five large oaks and several smaller trees were crashed into a crazy jumble on my lane obscuring two homes. The two houses were thankfully undamaged. I watched one of my neighbors emerge from the leafy wreckage with one of his dogs, beaming a somewhat hysterical grin.

"Is your house still there?" I asked.

"Yes!" he declared as if he had just won the Lotto and told me with great satisfaction how the pine tree in front of his house had deflected one of the oaks. He added that his wife had wanted him to take the tree out the year before but he had stood firm against her lack of forethought.

Although I was quite happy for him and his bashed and leaning pine tree, the scale of the destruction was jaw dropping. That I did not hear any crashing booms when it was happening attests to how fiercely the wind was roaring.

At first I thought my lane was the extent of the disaster. Sometimes a small twister can touch down briefly out of a severe storm and then bounce back into the sky. Also I figured that with our huge trees and all the rain we had in May that the tree fall was just a long time coming. The trees that fell were down the hill where the ground would be wetter and softer. I don't know the official rainfall for May 2011, but I know that I emptied my little 5-inch rain gauge twice in May. Ten inches and more in a month is pretty wet.

As the storm rumbled away in the distance people poured into the streets to survey the damage and check on neighbors and relatives. Then my normally quiet neighborhood became increasingly clogged with traffic. Many people were gawking at the damage, but they were also trying to find a path up to the main roads. Trees and downed power lines had blocked all points of entry and exit.

Curious, I packed the boys in the Jeep and went exploring. This was when I realized that the storm damage went far beyond my little neck of the woods. Trees large, medium, and small were down in tangled heaps everywhere. Some had crashed into houses. Power lines were drooping all over the place or on the ground and tangled in trees. When I finally reached the main commercial road after driving on power lines and navigating around fallen trees, Columbia Avenue was strewn with the chunks of the roofs of many commercial buildings. Signs were broken, bent, and twisted. I saw some parking lot lamps completely bent over. The tops of power poles were sheared off and still hanging from their wires. I read later in the Battle Creek Enquirer that approximately 100 utility poles went down in the storm. I still don't know how many homes have been damaged, and I doubt that any one will ever know how many trees went down.

I will miss those trees. The ones near my house were my friends. I enjoyed their beauty, walked beneath them, and breathed their oxygen every day. Thankfully no people were killed. The people in Battle Creek appreciate that this storm was not as deadly as the ones in places like Joplin, Missouri. Our homes weren't scoured down to nothing and no one had to pick their dead relatives out of rubble, but I now have truly seen the fury of Nature up close and personal. When I looked up and saw those squirrelly swirling cloud tentacles moving so much faster than normal, I beheld that which I could not bear to look upon. I can still see it in my mind. I don't like to look at the memory. It is laced with fear and trauma. That bare-fanged fury of a judgmental heaven sent me scurrying for my hole without a moment's hesitation. The absolute power of such a storm injected me with a terrible energy. The storm was a violent discharge of energy and the adrenaline jolt kept me up the whole night, and that first night was a black one. I even got spooked by the wreckage-filled darkness beyond my candlelit windows. A comforting snuggie of civilization usually insulates us from the omnipresent potency of Mother Earth, but when she looks back at you from the true darkness, you know that you are always at her mercy.

And the storm was merciful to me and mine. The nearby families that suffered damage have my sympathy. My day may yet come as did theirs.

That evening, before a darkness free of our puny electricity descended, the skies cleared and a sublime sunset sparkled over the waters and the twisted torn trees. The air was fresh, and golden light kissed all that was green and living. After so much rage, Mother Earth relaxed as if nothing had happened and she said to me, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful."