You might not think of Alabama as being part of Tornado Alley, but it ranks fourth among the states for number of killer tornadoes, third for tornado deaths, and first for the percentage of tornadoes that are F2 or stronger, cause a death, or both (lots of interesting statistics here if you are really wonky like me). You may not remember the freaking F5 (ie, largest, most powerful, scariest possible) tornado in Oak Grove, Alabama in 1998 that leveled parts of the high school and killed 34 people. But you probably remember the tornado in Enterprise, Alabama in March 2007 that leveled parts of the high school and killed 8 students. We're constantly bombarded with news about disasters happening to strangers, but hearing that a school was destroyed in your home state makes you realize it could happen to you. The local school systems must feel the same way. They have let out school early five times this year because a storm was coming.
A storm was coming last week. All morning I expected to get an automated call from the school system saying school was being dismissed early. The call never came. In the afternoon I drove to the school and waited in the carpool line with the other parents, as usual. Then I got a call from my critique partner in Utah: “Are you watching The Weather Channel? You’re about to get hit by a tornado.” Just then the phone beeped with another call. The automated system was informing me that school was being held over rather than letting out early because the tornadoes were already too close and no one should be out driving.
I looked at the car behind me, blocking me in from the back. I looked at the car in front of me, blocking me in from the front. I looked toward the southeast, where the tornadoes come from. I switched the call back to my critique partner and asked her to have my posthumous book royalties donated to the local high school marching band.
But by this time, every parent in the line had gotten the automated call, and everyone was walking up the hill to the school to check out their children. When I got back to the car with my son, the line of cars was moving, and we made it home before it even started raining. We watched the local TV channels (all the local channels broadcast nothing but weather when there’s a tornado warning) and gauged the exact moment when we needed to run to the basement.
That was Thursday. Friday was beautiful and sunny. Saturday night the eerie wail of the tornado siren woke us at 1 a.m., but the most violent part of the storm was passing north of us. The nice thing about everyone here being completely freaked out by tornadoes is that we have a great warning system and lots of information. We know the line of storms will develop in the Midwest (thanks, Midwest!) and gather strength across Mississippi. It will tear up Tuscaloosa and poor Oak Grove before it hits here in Birmingham. If the “areas of circulation” (read: possible tornadoes) on the weather radar enter our county, the warning siren will sound. But if they’re already north of us, we can go back to bed. It’s important to check. A few months ago when the siren went off at 3 a.m., the area of circulation moved right over our house. We spent quality time in the basement.
And now, another line of thunderstorms has formed across the Midwest, headed our way. Thank goodness tornado season is almost over. You can never be too careful at any time of year. We’ve had some doozies in December. But for the most part we will be okay if we just duck our heads and wait for June. And I’d still rather have tornadoes than hurricanes or earthquakes or blizzards or floods or OMG volcanoes, because tornadoes are my natural disaster, the enemy I know.