Friday, March 02, 2007

Notes From Tornado Alley


My heart is sad today as I wake up to news that at least eight teenagers died yesterday when Enterprise High School was hit by a tornado.

Earlier in the day, nearly everyone in Alabama was aware we were in for a bad weather day. Some school districts started the day by announcing school closings at noon. As the morning progressed, the clouds rolled, and we all stayed close to the television or radio. Shortly before noon, my own teenager called from school. “Mom, can I check out?” he asked. “Why don’t you wait a bit?” I replied. “The weather is getting bad and I don’t want to have to sit in the hallways all afternoon,” he said. So after checking with his law magnet teacher, he decided to leave with my permission. As he’s home safely napping, the tornado struck the hunkered-down teenagers in Enterprise, until now a little town known more for its statute of the Boll Weevil instead of the site of a devastating tornado.

All afternoon as we listened to our own tornado warning sirens blaring, we followed the story out of Enterprise. WSFA, one of our local stations, got their crew downstate while it was still daylight, and by the time of the Nightly News everyone in the nation could see the destruction. Luckily, the tornadoes that hit Montgomery County struck a mostly rural part of the area. Of course, if your house is blown away, it’s still blown away.

The problem with living in Tornado Alley is that now that the weather radar is more sophisticated, we get warnings anytime a rotation is noted. In our county, the whole county goes under a warning and it’s a large county. Only by watching the television weather trackers do we know for sure whether we should hit the deck or just remain watchful. We if closed our schools and dropped everything to hunker down in hallways and bathrooms, we’d be there a great deal of time from March to June. So, I don’t fault anyone at Enterprise High School for handling things as they did. We cannot win against nature.

photo of Enterprise tornado by John Dean

18 comments:

d-bo said...

wow, sorry to here of the devastation.....juzz browzin blogs,,,,,anywayz nice blog.......

Sheila said...

Thanks d-bo. Glad you could stop by.

Douglas said...

They had 28 minutes notice that there was a tornado warning. Past of the the blame for the Enterprise deaths is due to the structural issues with the school building.

Sheila said...

Douglas, thank you for your comment. Yes, structural issues would have to be an issue I agree, but where do you go to escape the fury of a tornado? I think sometimes there are no safe places. You just pray that it isn't your time. This is the case in Enterprise. There was proper warning. The sirens worked and there was time to know to take cover. The only thing I know we could do differently in Tornado Alley is to build storm bunkers much as they did in the old days.

My Granny, who herself was thrown from her home during an Oklahoma tornado, at one time had an earthen storm shelter. As a kid, it was a cool and dark respite from sweltering summer sun. Here in the South, we don't have as many basements as in other areas of the country. Maybe it would be a good idea to build more of them.

Don said...

Sheila, in the borrowed once famous words of Shug Jordan, “You are so right, Sheila”, you can’t win against nature most of the time. You can only hope to make the right choices and survive.

Deciding whether to dismiss students early or how early is a tough call to make in situations such as being in the path of a killer storm of yesterday’s size (I heard one report saying it’s path was 800 yards wide, not long, but wide. That’s 8 football fields wide.) and ferocity.

Had it been I, I would have been reluctant to send students away from what normally would be a safe haven out into what could be harm’s way. Suppose, as many families in this part of the country do, many of the students’ families resided in a trailer park or trailers on their own properties and the tornado had chosen those areas to hit rather than zeroing in on the school building. The death toll could have been much higher in a case like that.

Basements in much of southern Alabama are problematic because of the low elevation above sea level. I would imagine that building a basement that would stay dry would be an expensive proposition. I understand you can buy a small modular shelter suitable for a few people that can be buried that will stay dry, but probably the cost to a low income family would be prohibitive. Some homes now are being built with specially reinforced “safe rooms” within the structure, but again, cost is a factor that many people feel they can’t afford (even with government assistance in some cases) so they decide to take their chances and play the odds with nature.

Sheila said...

Don, I agree with you. This really was one of those situations where you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. The school officials were operating with what appeared to be wave after wave of tornado warnings if they started mid-morning. If there had been a break in the intensity long enough to get the kids home, then maybe they could have done that. But a school bus full of kids out on the roads could have been hit too.
They did what they thought was the right thing to do. They followed protocol by ushering the kids into the hallways. The structure was not strong enough for this force.

A few years ago I visited some relatives in Midwest City, Oklahoma shortly after the awful tornado they had. As far as my eye could see, the land was flattened where homes once stood. It looked like what I would imagine it would after a nuclear blast. When the people rebuilt, many had safe rooms built into the new home. But you are right, it is expensive to do that and I think the tendency is to think, "That's not going to happen again."

Marion said...

I thought of you when I heard of the devastation where you are.

I'm glad you're alright; we are in the midst of more hurricane force winds here now. It's been a tough Winter!

My daughter is a teacher at a high school, and when the warnings come, it is always difficult to make choices.

And you're absolutely right, Nature in full force cannot be beat.

Sheila said...

I remember Marion, that you have been through several severe storms in B.C. Let's hope Nature takes a breather and lulls around a bit. I hope you weather (sorry for the pun) the current winds and continue to look forward to the new life that Spring will bring soon.

Tim said...

My home town (Dyersburg, TN) was completely obliterated a few years ago by double F4's. Pooks and I sat and watched the radar and news on the pc in horror and nervousness for my own family as it tracked across several counties. So, I can certainly sympathize with those families, though my family remained safe.

It's true that you can't beat nature, and "tornado alley" seems to be widening, so should be re-termed. I think we should continue not to "evil-ize" the weather, though.

Sheila said...

Tim, I'm wondering how Dyesburg is doing now. So many times we see these towns hit so hard and then the news media leave and there is little follow up to the story. I know you and Pookie must hold your breath every time Tennessee is under the threat.

Jay Croft said...

Sirens? What sirens?

Oh, men were in my house installing a new refrigerator, and they told me that the sirens were going off.

I depend on my trusty pager to give me weather alerts.

A big problem is that the TV stations have various methods of alerting. The most common is a crawl across the bottom of the screen. However, the voice commentary is not captioned, and we Deaf folks are left to puzzle out the various color splotches on the screen.

Further, when a station inserts a map on the screen showing weather alerts in various counties, Alabama suddenly becomes a square rather than an oblong state. This makes it difficult to identify your home county. And sometimes they even add eastern Mississippi to the map!

Sheila said...

Jay, Did the pager alert you too? I can see your point about the danger area, but I think they have to zoom in to be more specific. Still, if we hearing folks suddenly no longer were hearing, we'd probably see just how hard it is to get information like you.

Delivering and setting up a refrigerator during a tornado warning is real dedication. What company were they from?

Note: Jay and I live in a Montgomery neighborhood that was well out of the path of the tornadoes that hit the southern part of our county. And we have really good stormtracker weather men and women who whip out their computers and radar like a kid ripping into a pretty package on Christmas morning.

Jay Croft said...

Yes, the pager alerted me often throughout the day. It's the exact same message on the TV screen crawl.

The next time there's a TV weather emergency alert with vari-colored blotches on a map, try watching it with the sound off. You'll get the idea.


I buy my appliances from Cohen's. There's not much difference in price than the "big boxes" in their neighborhood, and they give superior service. I learned that some "big box" stores contract out delivery and installation, and then there's a hassle if it's not done right. I'd rather pay a bit more to get good service.

Sheila said...

Jay, I will try the sound off next time there's a warning. And you know we will have more. I am concerned that they come so often that people will stop heeding them like the refrigerator guys did. Well in that case, they were okay since the tornado was in south county.

On the topic of big box service, the guys from Home Depot were jobbed out deliverers when they delivered our frig. Lowe's contractors are the same. You lose that oversight.

Naomi said...

We heard about the tornados on the news here in England. I'm glad you and your family are safe and ok.

AlexD said...

Sheila,

This was a good post. Living in Tornado Alley is a part of Southern living, just like snow is to Northerners. I was on duty that day and was in the middle of the storm system that went through south Montgomery county. My driver and I watched as Rich Thomas relayed warning after warning until our own Tornado siren went off. For the public it was time to hunker down, for me it was time to go to work. I don't fault anyone at Enterprise High for the deaths...it could have been much worse. BUT you know the lawsuits will start to fly in just a second.
Oh, and thanks for your wonderful comment on my post, "Competition Trick Eating" The buffet honestly looked like a Diabetic/Hypertensive conference. Keep up the good work on your diet.

Alex

Sheila said...

Thanks Naomi. I remember you writing about a tornado in Britain not too long ago and I didn't even realize they were a problem for you too.

Sheila said...

Alex, I wish you could write about the paramedic experiences but maybe you are prohibited or maybe you just need to escape that part of your life. I'll bet you see a lot and are touched in way we can't even imagine. Stay safe.