Growing up in the midwest in the ’80s and ’90s, tornado drills at school were the norm for me. You could leave a classroom of 8-year-olds by themselves and, if a tornado warning were to occur, they could cover their heads and hide in door frames with flair.
This was not one of those “how to wrangle your own buffalo during a societal collapse” type things, where people go through the motions before immediately forgetting the details. Even in Schaumburg (suburban Chicago)—where a tornado had never touched down during my lifetime—tornado awareness and education was a top priority during my childhood. People took it seriously.
Except for me. Apparently, all that relentless education had the opposite of the intended effect—something about it triggered my crying-wolf meter. In addition to the relentless drills and “serious” warnings during tornado season, Chicago tests all its tornado sirens on the first Tuesday of every month—partly to make sure they work, and partly to remind citizens of what to listen for in the event of emergency. My childhood was filled with hundreds of reminders about the pending “threat” of tornadoes, but never once was there an event serious enough to warrant a trip to the basement. Or thinking about whether the building you were in even had a basement.
College was the first time I realized that other midwesterners didn’t think the way I did about tornadoes. I was a freshman at Purdue in the middle of Indiana, going to school with largely smalltown and rural kids who, by their own account, considered Lafayette to be “the big city.” (Incidentally, Purdue is where I met my now-husband Clint, who is from Kansas. Let me tell you, Internet readers, he just loves jokes about going over the rainbow.)
A stormy evening arrived in September of that freshman year in 1999—the hot, late-summer air made us all wish we didn’t choose a dorm without air conditioning. Tornado sirens were going off, and I was prepared to stick to my usual disaster plan of continuing to watch TV while heating powdered mac & cheese in the microwave. But I could tell my dorm mates and friends did not seem to be planning for such a glamorous night. Some were calling their parents, barely suppressing tears as they described a weather event outside. “The pressure just dropped so fast!” Others were gathering together backpacks—mostly made up of homework, pagers (pagers are what came before cell phones, kids), and hidden beer—for their inevitable camp-out in the dorm’s basement. It was going to be a party, they snarked, as everyone would be there.
“Are you for fucking real?” I remember thinking to myself after my floor-mates popped in and asked if I was coming to the basement. I began wondering whether it was all a big joke—some kind of hilarious, natural disaster joke that would involve the Red Cross or something. I don’t know. I went out into the hallway, expecting it to be empty so I could prove my friends insane. Instead, I was met with chaos; people were going downstairs in droves, backpacks and illegal dorm pets in tow. At that moment, I had never felt so confused about how I was supposed to interpret a tornado siren.
I didn’t end up going to the basement. I was stubborn and still perplexed at everyone else’s reaction to the weather. That night, an F1 tornado touched down on the northeast side of Lafayette with gusts of wind measuring more than 100mph. I have since learned that an F1 isn’t always “find Toto” level (unless Toto is outside in the yard), but it’s enough to tear off roofs, roll over cars, and generally make people’s hearts and wallets hurt.
Everyone I knew at the time was safe afterward. That was the good news. But I had friends from Purdue who were townies, whose family homes suffered some damage. Some eventually dropped out of school to help their families deal with the costs. As someone who was not just lucky enough to grow up without tornadoes, but also with some privilege, seeing that happen to people I knew in real life was profound. Tornadoes were not serious in my personal bubble, but they were serious for a lot of other people.
I told this story to a friend over lunch as we discussed the horrific damage caused by F5 tornadoes in Oklahoma this week. At least 24 people died and more than 200 injured. There are many, many more dealing with the complete obliteration of their homes and communities. My heart breaks for those victims in Oklahoma.
(I have to interrupt the narrative for a minute to note that CNN claims “less than one tenth of one percent” of homes in Moore, Oklahoma have basements, apparently because of a local culture of simply not having them. Such a bizarre fact about a town that exists in the middle of Tornado Alley.)
Perhaps even closer to home, I now have in-laws who also live in the middle of Tornado Alley. When Clint’s father Randy texted us with a photo of my 8-year-old sister-in-law this week, smiling and holding alarmingly large balls of hail, I chuckled with horror. Separately on Facebook, he casually posted photos that could be screencaps from the movie Twister.
“Are you ready to go camping?” Clint asked me this morning over coffee. We’re driving down to Marion, Kansas to camp on his grandparents’ farm over Memorial Day weekend; I’ve been looking forward to it for more than a year, and we’re hoping to celebrate our Vegas wedding with his family while we’re there. The farm, by the way, has no basement, but—I swear this is not a troll—a root cellar like in Wizard of Oz.
We’re bringing meat to cook over the fire and there’ll probably be guns. Guns and sunflowers and millions of beautiful stars at night that make me second guess my compulsion to live in big cities.
Hell yeah I’m ready, I told him, and made a requisite joke about dressing up like Dorothy. He gave me a semi-amused, semi-serious laugh. “Do you know how to do a tornado drill?”