Tornado Alley

(This column was first published in the February 14, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    I have had only one tornado experience and I hope never to have another.

    In 1964 I lived in New Brighton, a northern Minneapolis suburb. Where I stood in my backyard, the sun was out and there was no wind at all. But severe storm warnings had been issued, I could hear sirens wailing in the distance, and, although it was mid-afternoon, the wall of clouds to the west was black as night.

    Then the noise began. Even now I can recall vividly the thunderous bumping roar. It was as though I knelt under a low railroad bridge with the train going across just above me -- off the rails.

    Perhaps ten minutes of that noise and the storm was gone. That was it.

    For me, yes, but for those four miles away near Route 65, the northern Hennepin Avenue extension, it was much more. I drove over the next day to witness the terrible destruction.

    Halves of homes obliterated, the other halves open to view like messed-up dollhouses. A brick elementary school leveled. Fortunately, several dozen children had been herded into the basement and they sustained no injuries. Atop the remaining school debris a 40-foot I-beam twisted into a perfect overhand knot. Acre-sized store roofs shifted, one turned 90 degrees, another slid off into a parking lot, a third simply gone. But along the highway was the strangest sight. Telephone lines neatly secured to their crosspieces in the ditch beside the bases of the poles that had held them up, but the two foot diameter poles obliterated. The bases left about four feet high, the rest shredded and gone. To gain an idea of the wrenching force that took out those poles, have someone hold a toothpick by both ends and try to twist out the middle section.

    We're fortunate here not to have many of these violent storms although they do occur. We average one, usually minor, tornado a year here; central Oklahoma averages over ten -- and theirs are often real thumpers.

    I am writing about tornadoes today because this Sunday, February 20, Howard Bluestein will speak at the Buffalo Museum of Science. The title of his 3:00 p.m. free Hayes lecture, "Tornado Alley: Monster Storms of the Great Plains," is the same as that of his outstanding new book for Oxford University Press. Bluestein is Professor of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma and is recognized not only as a leading researcher in this field but also as a tornado chaser. It was his team on the Timemagazine cover in 1966. If you plan to attend this lecture, I recommend that you get there early as every regional meteorologist and weatherperson worth our attention will be vying for seats.

    In his fine text, Bluestein offers these suggestions about what to do in the event a tornado approaches:

When a warning is issued, you should go to your basement or storm cellar. Running outside to take a picture or shoot a video of the approaching tornado is foolhardy. If you cannot seek shelter underground, go to an interior room, preferably a bathroom. It is remarkable how even in severely damaged houses, interior bathrooms often suffer the least damage. Stay away from windows to avoid flying glass and be sure to protect your head from flying debris. Do not open windows. The pressure inside a building should become equal to the lower pressure outside rapidly enough so that the structure will not explode. Opening windows increases the risk of sending damaging winds through a building and may reduce the precious time you have to seek shelter. Do not get into your car and try to outrun a tornado. You -- and other panicked drivers -- may not be able to get away before the tornado overtakes you. Mobile homes, even those that are tied down, are particularly susceptible to damage from tornadoes. (It has been suggested many times to us that we should paint the picture of a mobile home onto the side of our storm-intercept van as tornado bait.) If you are at work or in a building away from home, you should follow instructions for reaching the safest place; if there are no instructions, go to the basement, if there is one, or to an interior room on the ground floor. If you are in the open, try to lie down in a low-lying spot (avoiding areas where flash floods might occur) and protect your head.

    Meanwhile, recognize that our Niagara Frontier weather isn't all that bad.-- Gerry Rising