Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tornado sirens: a new appreciation

For most of the six years we lived in Cincinnati, we dutifully ran to the basement whenever the tornado sirens sounded.
But toward the end, in that final year, we took the warnings less and less seriously.
Every thunderstorm seemed to set the sirens off during tornado season and rarely had there been actual danger. Did we really want to wake all four kids and drag them down two flights of stairs in the middle of the night because of a little thunder and lightning?
So on a few of those nights, we remained snug in our beds, listening for changes in the storms and honestly believing that if one hit, we'd have plenty of time to react. Friends and some of our neighbors did the same. Those sirens became "wolf" cries to our ears.
We were stupid.
At about 2 in the morning on Memorial Day, my husband and I were sleeping in an upstairs bedroom in our new community of Knoxville, PA, when a storm came out of nowhere. Violent thunder and lightning rocked the house. The twins and our daughter climbed into our bed.
Our oldest remained in his room.
I stood and reached to close our bedroom window and was shocked to find that my arms were being tugged outward by the wind. I slammed it shut, knowing at that moment that this was no ordinary storm, that we should be in the basement and that our oldest son should not be alone.
But it was too late.
The tornado was already upon us and very quickly made its exit.
The winds quieted.
I was reassured by the fact that I heard no ambulances, no fire signals or sirens.
Then the buzzing of chain saws began.
We awoke to find a community in ruin. The majestic trees that once lined Main Street lie across the road or rested in the middle of houses. The community center that serves this borough of about 700 people had lost its roof. Several homes were damaged or destroyed.
No one had power.
Amazingly, no one was hurt.
Our house was undamaged.
A few days later, the National Weather Service confirmed we'd been hit by an F1 tornado.
No sirens had sounded to rouse us from our beds. No tornado watches or warnings had been issued. A severe storm warning from earlier that night had already expired. We had no way of knowing that it was coming.
The tornado passed too quickly for true terror or panic to set in. In fact, I was oddly calm in the hours that followed. Instead, the panic comes in bits and pieces when I realize what could have happened, what we should have done, how we should have reacted.
I've been hearing the same sentiments from others.
I never thought I'd feel this way.
But I miss those Cincinnati sirens and I promise that if ever I hear one again, I will heed it fully.
The kids will always fall back to sleep and if they don't, so what?
I lose a little sleep.
For one day.
A minor inconvenience.

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