The hook, the curled trailing edge of thunderstorms that can spiral up to form a tornado, passed right over our house. My son and I stood in our front yard watching lightning lit clouds on the south side of the sky going east while those on the north went west. In the center, a clear tube ran up into the darkness of the sky. It was very quiet and still with only the low rumble of nearly continuous distant thunder. The immense energy of the storm felt palpable, like that part in a sci-fi movie where the giant space ship moves slowly over head.
It’s that time of year.
The thick humid heat of the day raises great storms in the evening. For the last couple of hours, the entirety of central Texas north of Austin has braced itself as tornado bearing storms moved across the state.
Everything shuts down. All the local broadcast media shift to weather reports. Everyone watches the doppler radar that maps the dangerous rotation that presages a tornado. Automated email, instant messaging and texted alerts go out. People knock on the doors of neighbors and stop strangers to make sure they know of the looming danger. In small towns, air raid sirens wail.
In some ways it feels like a war zone. When I was a kid in the country back in the ’70s, we didn’t have doppler radar yet. We could see the storms coming only as general blobs on the screen. On nights such as this, we slept in the storm cellar lest a tornado catch us in our sleep.
Storm cellars are structures unique to North America. No other part of Earth has storms so sudden and violent that people must build the equivalent of bomb shelters that they can dive down into with only a few minutes’ warning. No other part of the world has our combination of thunderstorms, hurricanes, flash floods, ice storms and blizzards.
I think our intense weather shapes us. Foreign observers often understand how the great distances in North America influence our choices in matters such as our love of large vehicles, but I think they seldom understand how much we unconsciously plan for routine lethal weather.
It’s not over. A train of storms about an hour apart are moving in line from west to east, each bearing several rotating cells that might turn into a massive tornado in a matter of minutes. I’ll be staying awake to keep an eye on things…just in case.
In a few days or weeks it will happen again. We will stop our lives and watch in awe and trepidation as the great storms, each holding the energy of a dozen thermonuclear weapons, glide over us like vast indifferent beings. We hold our breath against the chance that this will be the time that they reach down and casually destroy us.
Then we get up the next morning, clean up the debris and go on with our lives. This is who we are. We are as this land has made us.