Monday, January 17, 2011

Another Tornado

by Rob Watson

As you may know, tornado season begins here in Kansas about the end of April and runs through June or so. The average number of tornados that touch down in the state is 55 per year. Some years are more; 185 in 2007, almost none this year. But, like they say, it only takes one. This is about that one.

My friend Friend bought a house beside his daughter-in-law and grand children. Originally it was an investment. The house was torn down but the storm shelter remained. Friend began to fix the place up. He leveled the yard, seeded it, trimmed the trees and then started to fix up the storm shelter.

Friend painted the storm shelter inside. He put on a heavy door, counter-weighted for easy opening, and heavy bolts to keep it closed in a storm. The shelter was wired for electricity and supplied with radio, benches, and chairs, and other useful items. The shelter was covered with extra dirt and that was seeded. The outside was also decorated with a painted lattice to make it more attractive. The final touch was the addition of a huge jack to lift the door if anything large was blown against it by the storm. All things considered, it became a pleasant, attractive place inside and out. The shelter is about 8 feet by 12 feet. (You need to remember this for later)

I helped Friend some. The good people in the surrounding houses also pitched in from time to time. Friend, a man of good and generous heart, let it be known among the neighbors that the shelter was available for any who might need it, He christened it with a Pizza party... in the shelter.

As Kansas storms go this year's was not a large one. It grew up southwest of Small City and proceeded east by northeast. It dropped a tornado just south of Small City and that followed the highway towards our town. I saw the first warnings and watched the radar track of the storm as it headed this way. I began to prepare one of the closets in our loft as our shelter... water, valuables, the cat, etc. We could have gone to the basement, but, I thought, our building has walls nearly 30 feet high, 16 inchs thick, made of brick. If it blew down, as similar buildings did in Greensburg, I would sooner be near the top of the pile than near the bottom.

All Kansas towns, no matter how small, have a storm siren. Last year, ours, which was powered by regular electricity, failed to give warning of an approaching storm, because the tornado tore down the power lines to the town. The town went to sleep with the assurance, from our TV weatherman, that the second line of thunderstorms was not dangerous. He stated positively it contained no tornados. When one formed and headed this way our faithful police officer drove out in the middle of the rain and lightening and turned on his car siren as a warning. Nobody heeded the warning, though most heard it, because they did not know what it was for. That tiny tornado wrecked a farmers barn and some of the winds from another part of the storm blew over my fence. The town decided, afterwards, that they should invest $20,000 in a battery supported alarm system.

Our new warning system has the sirens on poles placed in four places around town. It is battery supported. This is good because the power failed here again this year while this year's storm was still some miles away. It was about 5PM. The sirens sounded and we, along with everyone else in town, scrambled for shelter.

The siren howled and howled. The one near us is about 300 feet away and was apparently designed to wake the dead. After about 15 minutes the thing shut off. I was reluctant to leave the closet because, by my calculation, there had not been enough time for the storm to pass from its last known location into town, much less pass us by. For those who do not know, tornados almost always occur at the trailing edge of the storm that generates it. Wife, began to wander around the loft and peek out the windows.

After another 15 minutes I, and the cat, came out of hiding and began to wonder how, exactly, we were suppose to know when the danger had passed. I guessed it must be whenever our great new warning system shut off. I came down stairs and began to look around. The business across the street is owned by the fire chief (volunteer). I went over and asked if my guess was correct. "No" he said "we shut it off because the batteries were getting low." Well, I guess that is all you get for $20,000.

By 5 PM, most days, downtown Town is deserted. This night, with the question of safety unresolved, it looked like the Christmas parade. Everybody and his brother was out driving around looking for ( or, perhaps, to be) storm damage. The fire chief reported that he saw the wall cloud (precursor to a tornado) pass directly over the center of town where our two buildings are located. Investigation showed a dozen or so power poles all in a row, a mile south of town, had been blown down. (A few days later, 20 miles away, I saw a new, large, metal barn had blown over on a farmer's quarter million dollar combine. His house and old wooden barn, nearby, were apparently undamaged.)

The next day I found Friend and asked if he knew how we were suppose to know when the storm had passed. He replied that there was supposed to be some sort of "All Clear" sounded. He had a battery powered weather radio in the shelter and followed the progress of the storm from it. The real all clear came about 6:00. Then I asked how his storm shelter had worked out. He replied it had worked out well... for 22 people and 7 varmints. (Cats and dogs)

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