Tornado warning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Around midnight Tuesday morning, a number of us discovered that our mobile phones were producing sounds that we’d never before heard. They sounded either like the horn on an ambulance, or a high-pitched noise accompanying a TV test pattern. The tone lasted not even a second but it caught our attention–just as an unfamiliar sound coming from your pet or R2D2 android would. I unlocked the phone and got the message, “Tornado Warning in this area til 12:15 am CDT. Take shelter now. Check local media. –NWS” So began our rendezvous with the tornadoes–an EF2 tornado that struck Madison and a an EF3 that struck nearby Verona.
My habit up until this point has been to check the local media to see if the tornado is really headed this way. Since I live on Madison’s Isthmus, I’ve learned that the presence of the lakes on either side of us tend to divert storms either to the north or south of us, so I wanted to check. Since the only TVs in the house are used for DVDs and video games, the TV station as a source was out of the question. Which is problematic because I’ve found that local TV stations have the most up to date information Radio stations, I’ve found, usually don’t like to interrupt their broadcasts with weather information, which is deeply disappointing because legally, the airwaves (in case the frequency spectra for AM and FM radio) are owned by the public. The public, through the Federal Communications Commission, licenses private entities to use the airwaves and there are expectations of serving the public accompanying those licenses.
So I checked the websites of the local TV stations. One of them didn’t even have the warning on my phone. The other had a warning, but no more specific information. I chose to stay in my bedroom where I was. Eventually, I got the word that the tornado was going to the south of us, expected to be near the villages of Verona, Brooklyn, Oregon and Stoughton. So I stayed in my bedroom and started to get ready for bed.
Around 12:30 or so, I heard TWO of those tones, and at the same exact second, the power went off. It was almost as if my phone was telling me not just “Get downstairs,” but “Get the f*** downstairs, idiot!” My still-stubborn self was thinking, “Do I hafta?” but the tone produced by the phone was matched a minute later by a tone produced by a human in the form of a knock on the door, and a corresponding voice telling me that we have a tornado warning and that we should go downstairs. So I joined them. As I entered the basement, I heard something that sounded like a distant freight train.
I learned that mobile phones come in handy in the case of blackouts as they make for pretty good flashlights. Unfortunately, that’s about all they were good for in this case, as several of us tapped our devices for more information, but to no avail. When I was learning journalism in high school, we were taught that new stories should answer the questions Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. We knew the What (a tornado warning), Who (the National Weather Services telling us to get our tushes into the basement pronto), the Why and How (high humidity plus heat make for volatile weather systems), but were still vague on the Where (somewhere in Dane County). Finally, someone managed to get a TV station broadcasting in real time, and they spoke about a storm headed northeast towards Sun Prairie.
After it was clear that we were “all clear,” I headed up to my room. Since the power was still out, lack of fans and A/C made it quite hot in my room and I struggled to get to sleep in a way that was comfortable. I sleep better when hooked up to my CPAP, but I was so hot and sweaty that even if could power the machine, the CPAP mask would have likely started hydroplaning on my face and creating more Bronx cheers than a big beef and bean burrito consumed at the previous meal. Desperate for comfort, I cradled around an open window that touched the foot of my bed, and I eventually fell asleep that way. I was wakened up at 4:30 a.m. by the power suddenly going on, so I wiped off my sweat, hooked myself to the machine, and somehow slept through my phone alarm, not waking up until 35 minutes before it was time to leave for work.
Normally, I bike the two miles to work, but decided not to in this case because predictions of more thunderstorms could make my commute home more difficult. Once I stepped outside and walked the one block to the bus stop, I realized there was another good reason not to bike to work–debris that would have turned my commute into an obstacle course.
It was kind of strange and surreal to see the damage on the next block, as I’d seen very little on my block. It was as if I’d walked into a completely different world. Near the bus stop, a tree with a six-inch trunk had snapped in half and fell on the car below it, crushing the rear half of it as if it were an aluminum can. Street and forestry crews were everywhere and the street was closed off–I had to walk one more block to the north to catch my bus.
One block down, a co-worker got on the bus and told the story of more mayhem in the neighborhood. A printing facility about sixty feet wide had its roof ripped off. Multiple cars had gotten crushed on his block and he ended up calling 911 (after not being able to get through on the police emergency line) because he knew that homeless people would often sleep in their cars on that block.
Eventually, the word had gotten out that an EF3 tornado had touched down in Verona and that an EF2 had touched down had touched down on the southwest side of Madison on Friar Lane and Schroeder Road. Apparently, it didn’t touch down on the Isthmus, but passed over closely. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
I think I’d often considered myself immune to tornadoes because of all the years I’d lived in the city. In the Chicago area, tornadoes rarely ventured into the city limits. I have memory of one passing over a campsite when I was a kid, and it took one of the tent poles and threw it through the canvas wall of the tent as if it were a javelin. But I think differently now. Seeing the debris made me think about what could have happened in our basement, and I think we will need to do some cleaning out in order to make a safe room down there.
And finally, I’ve resolved to stop arguing with my phone. If it tells me to get downstairs, I’ll get downstairs.