Tornadoes can occur just about any time or place, given the right conditions – an apparent tornado struck Lambert Field, the main St. Louis airport, last year, blowing out windows and shutting the entire airport for a time. (The video below is security camera footage, showing passengers and TSA officials scrambling as ceiling tiles fell and windows shattered.) Tornadoes are most common during March, April and May in the southern states, late spring into early summer in the northern states. We are in the middle of tornado season.
I grew up in central Illinois and experienced the 1965 Peoria tornado. School had let out half an hour earlier, and most kids had gone home. I stood at the window of my classroom with another teacher’s child, looking out at the storm that dumped rain by the bucketful. At about 3:30 the sky turned the colors of the worst bruise you’ve ever had – green, purple, yellow, gray. Suddenly the noise of the pounding rain stopped and the world felt held in suspended animation. Long moments later the rain picked up where it had left off and poured down in torrents.
This was the pre-social media, pre-cell phone days. The adults were all meeting in a downstairs conference room and hadn’t seen what we had. We had no idea what had happened.
After school, for reasons I don’t recall, my mother and I planned to drive into downtown Peoria. As we neared the downtown area, it wasn’t just branches that we saw, but entire trees down. Stuff – buckets, lawn furniture – everywhere. And the sight I’ll never forget: as we drove past the Coca-Cola Bottling plant, I saw the brick and cinder-block wall stripped away, exposing tall stacks of unbroken cases of Coke. That’s when we realized that a tornado had torn through, and the strange pause I had observed at the school window occurred when the funnel cloud passed by. As my mother drove through the flooded streets, water would occasionally leak into the car. I was impressed at how she knew to pump the brakes to dry them once we were on safer road.
It got personal when we tried to cross Kickapoo Creek to get to our home. The road was flooded. We had to turn back toward the school. My mother went to the home of another teacher, the one whose daughter had shared with me the sight of the bruised sky and the eerie pause in the storm. There we waited out the flooding, returning home when the police had established safe routes.
Peoria was relatively lucky. As an intern reporter on the Port Huron (Michigan) Times Herald in 1974, I was assigned to write about the tornado that struck Xenia, Ohio, killing 41 people and injuring thousands.
I will never underestimate the damage tornadoes can do. If you live in tornado country, take a few steps to be safe during tornado season.
- Make sure you have a battery-powered or hand-crank radio. Listen to NOAA Weather Radio or a local commercial station to get the latest news and advisories.
- Don’t drive through flooded roadways. Last year 63% of flooding fatalities were the result of driving through floods. Sudden floods can make even familiar roads treacherous. Turn around.
- Take shelter in an interior room without windows.
- Be alert for downed power lines. Treat all downed power lines as a life-threatening emergency. Alert authorities.
- Severe thunderstorms can often knock out power to large areas. Make sure you have water and food supplies on hand.
Many people express alarm at the thought of living, as I do, in “earthquake country.” Having seen what tornadoes can do, though, my hat is off to those who brave tornado season.