Jun. 5th, 2011

Tornado

Jun. 5th, 2011 12:51 am
tehuti: (Default)
Wednesday, June 1, 2011 is going to be one of those days that gets remembered by a lot of people for a long time. I've seen two tornados in my life. The first time, I was very young. I'm not entirely sure how old I was, but definitely under five. My father's family lived in Abilene, Kansas, and when I was young, we used to go visit them every summer. I have a few memories of the old farmhouse that Grandma and Grandpa lived in. It was white, and I used to like chasing insects around the house with my flyswatter of doom. They lived near some railroad tracks, and I absolutely loved watching the trains go by. It could take hours, no exaggeration.

One night, all the adults were nervous about something. I was blissfully ignorant, and complained mightily when they sent me to bed early. At some point in the middle of the might, I my sleepy brain heard a train going by. So I popped out of bed and ran to the window.

The tornado wasn't very big, but it had a very distinct cone shape. It was oddly bright, lit from below by the street lights of the town. Because of the lights, I could see the dust cloud it kicked up. At the time, I didn't know what it was, except that it wasn't a train. The window was rattling like a train was going by, which really confused me. The thing, whatever it was, was over a mile away (in retrospect, my toddler brain couldn't conceive of distance that way), but there were no buildings between it and me, except for an electric relay station, near the tracks. The cloud was moving, but not towards us. It actually looked like it was following the train tracks, heightening my confusion. Trains didn't make clouds like that, but it definitely sounded like one.

I sat in the window, transfixed for what felt like forever, but was probably only a minute or three. My father must have heard me stirring (with the preternatural hearing all parents seem to suddenly develop when they spawn), because he came in and shooed me away from the window. The last thing I saw was the tornado as it hit the electrical station. There was a massive shower of sparks, and a split second later, everything in the house and outside went dark. Since I couldn't see anymore, I complied with my dad and went back to bed.

That memory is in the neighborhood of 36 years old. It is one of my earliest memories, and one of the only ones I have of the time we spent in Kansas. I can see it in my mind's eye like it was yesterday.

If I was smart, I'd have written this blog yesterday, so that the last paragraph would have made a great bridge to the second tornado I've ever seen.

Most of you reading this live in Western Mass., or care about me and my family enough that you've probably seen all the pictures of this thing that you care to. I don't have any new to share, as it didn't occur to me to take pictures or video of the tornado as it passed through. Mostly, I was shocked that there was a tornado actually on the ground in my city, and my brain took a vacation.

I can tell you what I saw, starting at the beginning. I first turned it on the Weather Channel in mid afternoon, because I knew that we were due for potential thunderstorms. Aimee and Connor were out doing errands. Mich and Ian were at work. At some point, all four of them were going to be coming home, so I wanted to know what was going on, and warn them what to expect. We were also expecting two of Ian's relatives to arrive at some point, driving up from Baltimore, but they were coming in later than the storms, or so we thought.

The Weather Channel told me there was a tornado warning for all of Western Mass. So I dutifully emailed everyone to warn them, and switched over the New England Cable News. If you weren't watching them on Wednesday afternoon, those guys were really on the ball. They've got some fancy weather doodads over there. Several different Doppler Radar feeds, some cool software that tracks wind direction and speed, and another little trick that can predict conditions likely to produce a funnel cloud. When I turned it on, there was a line of cells on the radar, stretching from Albany, NY up into the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It wasn't a solid line, but these storms weren't screwing around. Every single storm cell had rotation in it. The one farthest north produced a tornado in Jefferson, NH. Another big storm went through Keene, but they got lucky, just thunderstorms.

The cells in Massachusetts looked the most dangerous, and not just because they were in our area. They were big, lots of lightning, and multiple tight balls of rotation. The weathermen were a little too excited to be pointing all this stuff out. In their defense, in their place, I'd probably be really excited too. You don't become a TV weatherman in New England and expect to cover stuff like this. Blizzards and nor'easters, definitely. The occasional hurricane, sure. But tornados? Let alone an outbreak of them? So I will forgive them their excitement, tempered as it was by their full knowledge of what all this data meant.

One of the cells went right through Northampton, into Amherst. I called Michy to warn her to stay at work. She was due to leave right around when the storm passed through. They got huge pieces of hail there, and one of the photos I saw, of the storm passing through UMass, was unreal. Sheets of rain that nearly blotted out the street lights, high wind and hail.

I call Aimee, to tell her to get home as quickly as possible. She had stopped at the Holyoke Mall to pick up some stuff for our mini-vacation this weekend. In fact, I'm sitting in a nice beach house in Dennisport on Cape Cod, which is full of fellow Arisians and their friends and family, as I write this. And yes, I do feel a little guilty that my family is away enjoying ourselves while so many people back home are living in shelters. Anyway, she told me she was planning to nurse the baby a bit before driving, a fairly common practice of hers. I urged her not to, told her why, and went back to the news. She came in about fifteen minutes later.

Not long after that, the first of the southern cells reached Westfield. Conflicting reports started coming in from NECN viewers. There was a funnel cloud on the ground near Shaker Rd. (which is the south side of Westfield, near the Agawam border). But maybe it was just a funnel cloud, but no vortex. A few minutes later, there were similarly conflicting reports that the funnel cloud, maybe a tornado, was approaching the Connecticut River. Aimee arrived home sometime in the middle of these two events, not entirely sure when. I was distracted and not paying close attention.

This is when I went out onto our porch. For those of you that have never seen it, my family's home is a three story Victorian, just barely outside the Forest Park Heights Historic District. It's 100th birthday is next year. Our front door is on Sumner, facing south toward the park. The clay tennis courts at Forest Park are directly across the street from us, and the main entrance is about 100 yards up the street. The second floor of our house has a screened in porch, on the west side of the building, facing Churchill St. It's got views west and north, along both streets.

I saw the funnel cloud immediately when I walked out the door. It looked to be over West Springfield somewhere, judging from the distance. I couldn't see it all the way to the ground or river, because the houses across the street blocked the view, and our part of the city is on a hill.

More ominously, I HEARD it as quickly as I saw it. It was a sound similar to a train. Time started to slow. I saw some things flying in the air that I originally took for birds, until I suddenly realized that nothing alive could be flying in that. I tweeted what I saw and stupidly called Aimee out to see it. At this point, my brain still hadn't made the connection between what I was seeing and what that meant it was. From my vantage point, I could see the cloud rotating, but the weather guys had been talking about those all afternoon.

Once Aimee came out, the cloud moved closer. I know now that, at this point, it had crossed over from West Springfield, near the Memorial Bridge, into downtown Springfield itself. It was moving across the city, near Union St., towards the Watershops. I didn't know it, but at this point, it was approximately one mile away. But there was no no doubt what we were looking at. We could clearly see the rotation of the cloud, debris flying everywhere. I saw a piece of roof insulation in the air that I later recognized on a video I saw of the tornado crossing the river. The noise was much louder, and it was moving faster than anything weather related had any right to move. Aimee and I stood on our porch. I said something like, "Oh my God, that's an actual tornado…", and she said something back, equally as shocked. And in that short amount of time, it moved east, out of our view behind our house. Neither one of us had the presence of mind to take a video, or a photo, or do something sensible like get the hell inside and in the basement with our son. We stood, transfixed by the power of Mother Nature. I now understand why so many people don't do anything when they see a tornado. Your mind cannot comprehend what you're looking at, and if you are unlucky, by the time you do it's too late.

I ran back inside and tweeted "CONFIRMED - TORNADO ON THE GROUND, MAIN ST SPRINGFIELD #tornado " In the midst of writing it, the weather guys announced that a tornado had been spotted on Main St. in Springfield, so I repeated what they said, and rapidly followed up with "Holy shit, I watched it from the porch!"

It quickly moved off, as these storms do, and the weather guys continuously updated where it went, tracking it through Wilbraham, Palmer and into Munson. The news folks kept updating us on the aftermath, some of which I passed on via Twitter. Michelle came home, and told us that she had to drive over branches on Hall of Fame Boulevard to get home, because the highway was backed up. What she didn't know was that the tornado went over it about fifteen minutes before she walked in. Ian followed fairly quickly after that, and then his relatives arrived. So we traded stories, and I brought everyone up to date on what had happened.

My story would end here, except for one thing. We had guests, so we took them out to dinner. I'd had it in my head to recommend Red Rose, our favorite Italian place on Main St., near Union St. That was obviously out, as the early videos and news reports made obvious. So we went to Hazard Grille in Enfield, CT. Dinner was great, the weather was still weird (but not as bad as it had been), and all was well until we tried to go home, after 9pm.

The police had closed all of the ramps into Springfield from Rt. 91. This presented us with a significant problem, since we had to go into Springfield. We tried to get around it by driving along 91 to the North End, then down Dwight St., eventually into Forest Park. Unfortunately, we ran into a street roadblock, so we had to turn up State St. past the Armory and STCC. Traffic on Walnut St. was heavy, but moving, and that presented us another way into our neighborhood, so we tried it.

Big mistake. The damage downtown was bad, but the damage we saw here was in a completely different league. We had inadvertently driven into the worst part of the tornado's path (outside of East Forest Park and Munson). One house in particular has been seen on the news a lot. It's a smallish house, with the entire front upper story missing. The furniture in the three upper rooms is still largely in place, almost as if the building had been sliced down the front. We drove right past it. We all kept looking around through the windows of the van, behaving exactly like the disaster tourists we weren't, and no doubt pissing off all of the people we passed on the street, who were either victims or trying to help the victims of the storm.

The trip home from Enfield normally takes about ten minutes. That night, it was over an hour and a half, during most of which time, Connor was letting us know he was unhappy. And also during which we saw so much damage, everywhere we drove, that all of us felt a little shell-shocked, lasting into the next day.

I love the Valley, every part of it. I often tell people that there is no better place in the world to live. We're in the middle of everything. New York is three hours away, Boston less than two, same for Providence. I can go to the beach or the mountains in two hours. I can disappear into the most remote parts of New England in three hours or less. Almost whatever you can think of to do, you can find somewhere to do it within a easy distance from Western Mass. The years I lived in other parts of the country, I largely spent them plotting and planning how to get back home to the Valley. My heart bleeds for everyone that was adversely affected by this storm, and I grieve for the damage our beautiful Valley has suffered.

Our home was spared by the tornado. Lots of people weren't as lucky. A very few didn't live through it. Thousands of trees have been destroyed. An untold number of birds and other wildlife were killed. Hundreds of buildings are gone, and an unknown number of others will be knocked down before gravity finishes what the storm started. Some of them are literally irreplaceable, and Springfield is poorer for their loss.

The Valley, my home, will never be the same. People will recover, shattered lives will be rebuilt. I have faith that everything will eventually be OK, even as some despicable people use this disaster as an opportunity to prey upon the victims. But our home as been changed forever. I am sad and angry for what we've lost, and will continue to lose, because of the tornado of June 1, 2011.

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