National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

Stormy weather

by Joe Sullivan

Friday, March 2, 2007

As much as I want spring to bust out all over, I dread the stormy weather that warmer temperatures bring.


There. I said it.

I don't like tornadoes. 

I am, however, a fairly typical Midwesterner. When I hear that the weather watchers have spotted a tornado, I do not head for the basement. I go outside.

It's the national pastime, along with all-you-can-eat buffets, of middle America. If somebody spots a twister, you want to see for yourself.

Sometimes we stand outside with green clouds swirling overhead to the accompaniment of special musical arrangements performed by wailing sirens -- pretty much the same tunes that herald bombers and tsunamis.  

Before TV, we relied on other warning systems. Most folks interpreted the color of the sky. Or watched when the birds stopped flying. Hail was a pretty good sign of wind to follow. And then there's the roaring sound of the wind, often likened to the pandemonium of a freight train. 

On Killough Valley in the Ozark hills over yonder, we did not compare the sound of nearby tornadoes to jet planes. Except for the occasional test of an experimental plane from the big aircraft plant in St. Louis, we had never heard a jet.

I have never seen a tornado, even though we lived for a few years in Dorothy's home state of Kansas. But I've heard a few. It's not a pretty sound.

The first year I was in college I took the bus from Kansas City to St. Louis to be picked up for the trip to Killough Valley for Easter break. While we were in St. Louis, we received an urgent phone call at the home of my aunt telling us that the farm had taken a direct hit from a tornado. My younger brother and a baby sitter were in the farmhouse at the time while my mother was at work in town, but they were OK. Since we had no phone at the farm, they hitched a ride to town to make the call. Instead of spending the night in St. Louis as planned, we went home to the moonlit aftermath. 

The next day there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the wind was brisk and cold from the north. All of the shingles on the roof of the old farmhouse had been stripped off. The house, sitting on fieldstone piers rather than a foundation, had been picked up and turned a few inches. 

The big casualty was the barn, constructed in 1880 with main timbers hewn from virgin oak trees that spanned 30 feet or more. Some of those beams were sticking up like arrows in the field down the valley. 

A sheet-metal-clad pole building that housed farm equipment between the house and barn was so damaged it had to be razed. The outhouse was toppled. 

Another time a tornado tore through the woods on the hill southeast of the farmhouse. The treeless scar took nearly 40 years to grow back. 

And another time, when I was in vacation Bible school, my mother picked me up and said there had been a tornado at Fremont, Mo., on the other side of Van Buren, and the town had been blown away. 

When you're 10 or 11 years old, it's hard to comprehend such devastation. We didn't have TV to show it to us up close on a daily basis. Photographs in newspapers or magazines only displayed what happened somewhere we had never been and weren't likely to go. Ever.

So we loaded up the car and headed for Fremont. 

When we reached the tiny town, we drove around in silence. We were awestruck by the debris, the twisted trunks of trees, the exposed foundations where homes once stood, the capsized church steeple, an overturned pickup truck -- all the result of a force mightier than we could possibly imagine. 

I pray that this season's storms aim for the woods and fields, skipping the farmhouses and towns and factories and schools and Wal-Marts and trailer parks. And now that I've heard a few jets, I'd rather not hear them when there are no airplanes in the sky. 

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian. Ext. 252