Once in a great while I write completely off the usual topic of this blog, and I thought our recent experience of surviving a tornado might be a good candidate.
A few weeks ago my wife and I were reminded by our daughter that we had not been to visit her and her family since their baby boy was born in early December of last year. Since then they had made the 2 ½ hour trip to see us several times, but we were overdue to come visit them. They live in a small town of about 500 people in Northwest Iowa, and she is a stay at home mom who watches a few other kids during the day while her husband works as a car mechanic and is a volunteer fireman. They had made some improvements to the house since the last time we were there that they wanted us to see, and since it had long since been our turn to visit we gladly made the trip.
When we got there on Friday April 8th there was the usual excitement of seeing all the new improvements to the house, visiting with them and their friends, and my wife and I just enjoying the getaway and being treated as guests for a change.
Saturday came and found us exploring a local state park for future camping possibilities. Next we drove to a couple of nearby towns for groceries and some thrift shop browsing. Then it was back to their house to relax and visit for the evening. On the way we noticed on the highway just outside of their town a storm chaser vehicle parked at the side of the road, loaded with various antennae and other hardware on the roof, looking out over a vast, empty field.
The temperature that day had been unseasonably warm and humid. Usually the sun will burn off the haze and fog, but the gray hung on all day and grew darker as the evening closed in. We set up a little storm watching area of our own on the kids back patio, looking directly south through their backyard and then hundreds of yards across the barren farm field that started where their lawn ended.
The horizon grew darker and slowly there arose one of the largest, blackest thunderheads I had ever seen. Lightning came from everywhere, striking the ground, backlighting the monster cloud, and sheeting across the entire sky. The rain began falling while the huge black cloud kept growing, and then the strobe-lightning began. That kind of lightning, constantly flashing like a strobe light, can be a precursor to a tornado. Combined with hail, which fell for about five minutes in pea to golf ball sizes, and the indicators really began to look ominous.
In the middle of their back yard is an ornamental windmill, about seven feet tall, which had been blowing hard from the south all night. At one point the wind stopped completely, and everything seemed frozen but the churning clouds and lightning. Suddenly the windmill completely changed its direction and was blowing hard from the north. The kids got a call that a tornado had blown through a friend’s property a few miles southwest and it was headed straight for us. We stepped out into the backyard for a better look and there it was, across the field, dipping down and sucking back up into the angry clouds. The temperature dropped 30 degrees, then rose to as hot as it had been during the day, then dropped again, like waves coming across us. The last time we looked at the windmill, as we bolted for the basement door, it was spinning in circles.
By the time we made it down the stairs it hit. The lights flickered twice and the basement went dark, the only light now coming from the strobe lightning through the small windows. There was a solid thud and the entire house shuddered. When we talked about it later most of us agreed that at that point we were ready to see the house disappear from over top of us. It was happening too fast to think about dying, we were just part of the action and suspense of the moment. There seemed to be a breathing of the house, like it came alive briefly, almost as if the walls were sucking in and out. Then it let go and passed on, leaving us in the dark basement listening to the wind howl and watching the lightning flash.
|Camper In Tree|
We let a few minutes pass before creeping up the stairs and opening the back door. The first thing that greeted us was astonishing proof of the fury that had just passed: in one of the trees in their backyard was the next door neighbors RV camper, which had previously been parked at the edge of the field. That neighbor also had large tree limbs on his house and trees down in his front yard. The power was out all over town. Trees and limbs and debris were everywhere, in yards, the streets, wrapped around other trees and poles. The kids lost a few dozen shingles from their roof and a window awning. A homemade smoker made from an old stove had been thrown from behind their garage into the other neighbor’s backyard, while a shovel leaning against a shed not more than six feet away from where the smoker had been had not moved. One mystery was what had happened to the glass top patio table that had been just outside of the back door. It was later found in the front yard close to the street, on its top, no worse for the wear. The only way it could have reached that position was to have flown up over the top of their house.
In the morning an exploration of the rest of the town revealed how lucky we really were. The damage looked like a giant on a huge pogo stick had bounced his way through town, smashing down every fifth house or so, and then becoming airborne again. Maybe the damage was random and had no pattern but I was immediately reminded of what the tornado looked like when we saw it across the field, repeatedly dangling down from the clouds and then sucking back up as it made its way toward the town.
When we visited the kids last December we lost power and were snowed in by a blizzard. This time it was a tornado. Now they are joking about what we will bring with us the next time we come to see them.