S. Lee Manning: This month at Rogue Women Writers, we’re writing about natural disasters – real and fictional. I’ve never written about a natural disaster. Never really experienced one either, although as a child of the Mid-West, I did have a close brush with a tornado or two back in 1974 when 148 tornados swept through the South and Midwest. So from my position of experience, I will give a few tips on what to do and what not to do when a tornado is nigh.
1. Try to find a safe place, not your car, and not the roof of a fraternity.
So, on a spring day in 1974, my sister and I, who were probably fighting since that was what we did, were in the car driving back from the University of Cincinnati to the apartment we shared with my friend Ethel when we heard the news. Tornados had been spotted approaching Cincinnati. We figured we had enough time to get home so we decided to risk it and drive. Not the smartest move – but a lot smarter than the scores of fraternity boys, some with cameras, who perched on the roofs of the frat houses lining the road for a better look at the funnel cloud.
We were lucky. We got to the apartment unscathed. As we reached the apartment, we looked across a valley and up to the Western Hills – and on the top of the ridge, a tornado was ripping up homes. It was a bone chilling sight.
The fraternity boys also got lucky. The tornados did not take the leap across the valley – so a generation of Cincinnati frat boys lived to reproduce.
2. If you’re heading to the basement because a tornado is coming, don’t stop to answer the phone.
This should be self evident – to anyone who’s not nuts, but anyway…
Once we reached our apartment, where Ethel was cowering in a corner, I quickly called my mother. “Tornados headed your way.”
“I know,” she said. “The tree in the front yard just fell over. I was going into the basement when the phone rang.”
Like I said. Should be self-evident. My mother. Loved her but there you go. Of course she’d answer a phone with a tornado breathing down her neck.
3. Opening the windows does nothing.
As a child, I’d heard that you should open windows when a tornado approaches – that otherwise the pressure difference between the house and the tornado would make the house explode.
As a child, I also thought that green jello with marshmallows in it was a vegetable. Turns out I was wrong both times.
The winds are what rip apart a house, not some sort of pressure nonsense. Opening windows just takes time that you should be spending getting to a safer place. Opening windows will also let the rain in, which won’t matter if a tornado actually hits, but which could ruin your stereo – that’s a device we old people used to use to play music – if the tornado misses you.
Oh, and green jello with marshmallows does not count as a vegetable.
We opened our windows – because I was young and stupid. See above about stereos and rain.
4. Get to a basement or stay away from the windows. Preferably both.
This is actually important. First, stay away from windows. Self-evident. Windows break. Stuff comes through windows.
Second, the basement – get there. There’s a reason that Dorothy and Auntie Em and Uncle Henry were heading for the underground storm shelter when the most famous tornado in movie history hit. It really is safer.
However, if you are a resident in a second story apartment, you might not have a basement to retreat to. We didn’t.
There was a basement apartment with three weird guys who we didn’t really know all that well, but tornados make good neighbors. We knocked on the door, said TORNADO, and they let us in. The guys turned out to be what we’d probably consider nerds in this day and age – rather than serial killers – so it could have been a lot worse. All of us huddled against the wall. Someone, I think Ethel, had grass. What do you want – it was 1974 – and there was a tornado.
5. Have a flashlight and a radio in case the power goes out.
We didn’t have either, but generally just seems like a good idea when there’s a serious storm. Along with water. There’s a lot more things to have these days – like your cell phone and your cell phone charger – but those were simpler times.
6. Wait for the all clear.
That’s what the radio or the cell phone is for. Tornados are funny things. They jump around – and you do want to wait until they’re finished before you say adieu to the now stoned weird guys in the basement apartment.
We did. The radio announced that the tornados had passed. We thanked our downstairs neighbors and left. Then we called my mother, who had lost a tree but was fine.
And that is the total sum of my experience with tornados – along with the total sum of my advice. We – my sister, Ethel, the three weird guys, my mother, and I – had been lucky. The tornados that brushed by us wiped out the town of Xenia, Ohio, killing thirty-three people.
Wait, I lied. One last tip:
7. If you’re lucky enough to escape a natural disaster unscathed and with funny stories about weird guys in the basement, remember that not everyone does. Be generous and kind to those for whom a natural disaster actually is a disaster.
To that effect – remember all the people affected this year by hurricanes and fire who still need help. The two links below will help you find a reputable charity to help those still suffering.
Great post, S.L. with all sorts of very logical tips/warnings for people who may have no clue what to do in a freak storm. I've also heard stories about last-minute survival moves. For example, a mother had only moments when she heard the roar of a nearby tornado. Having no basement, she grabbed her baby along with the crib mattress, hid with her little one in the bathtub with the mattress over them. They survived perfectly when lots of damage surrounded them. On a personal note, we're still doing repairs from Hurricane Irma – but, thankfully, no one here in Naples was hurt in that one!
I alternated between fear and laughter reading your wonderful post, S. Lee. What good advice. And I remember Jello being a vegetable, and green Jello being even more nutritious. It's a wonder any of us survived!
I'm glad that Irma didn't hurt anyone in your town. I'm not sure how helpful my tips would really be- except for telling people to get to the basement and stay away from windows. I do hope people will note the very last tip – and support charities that are helping those who suffered from the year's terrible events.
So Jim and I had a debate over which was worse – the green Jello with marshmallows or the whatever color Jello with canned fruit cocktail. We did eat terrible things back then.
I know three types of natural disasters from personal experience: blizzards from living 15 years in Ontario, hurricanes from 27 years in Houston, and tornadoes from childhood years in Kansas. The terror of big earthquakes and fire I pray to skip entirely.
My childhood home lacked a basement so we either fled across the street to neighbors who had one, or drove six blocks to huddle in my grandparents' basement.
When I was in seventh grade a huge tornado ripped through our town and killed thirteen people only half a mile from my home. A boy in my class died as he rode his bike home.
The enormous funnel cloud was on the ground and headed straight for me and my mom as we ran to the neighbors, but a dip in terrain deflected the path.
I KNOW tornado weather by all sorts of clues, feel it in my bones. Since I grew up with them, tornadoes seem manageable whereas the other natural disasters do not. Well, blizzards are ok if you know the rules and don't do anything stupid. But the rest of them….yikes!I
I haven't written any natural disasters into a book yet, but it's not a bad idea. Thanks, Sandy. Interesting post!
Wow, your tornado story is a lot scarier than mine. Glad you were okay. Glad you also got through Harvey – although I am still so sad for Houston. I have been in a blizzard or two – but I guess here in Vermont, that's just Monday – so I didn't consider writing about them.