Some people in my family were killed more than ten years ago by a tornado in Alabama, and some survived. Those who died, died bad, and the repercussions resonated through three families and several generations of those families. That tragedy will continue to have consequences for the direct and indirect survivors well beyond my experience, and the particular, personal details of that story are not mine to tell. Cathartic as it might be for me, I don’t believe you get to own everything you encounter.
There are some things I can talk about. Growing up in the south gives you a fascination with tornadoes. They are evil in intent and mythic in scale, fickle beasts, revered and feared in an almost spiritual way. As kids, before you really know the destruction they cause, and if you are lucky enough to never really live through one, tornado warnings are exciting. We would huddle in the hallways in school, not-so-secretly thrilled about the electric suspense we imagined in the air. In almost all cases nothing came of it. A lot of time, resources, and attention are spent warning people in the south about severe weather in general and tornadoes in particular. Watching weather reports, interpreting weather radar — these are regional obsessions when a storm is lurking.
In that storm a decade ago, I was in Birmingham while it passed north. I remember looking out my window in that direction at the line of clouds in the distance, and even though I couldn’t see any funnels, there was a distinctive, disturbing characteristic of colossally severe weather: purple clouds. Not just some kind of very dark blue, but incandescent purple. Electric.
After, I went out with family and friends to deal with some of the damage, in a rural area. That tornado was a jumper. Unlike the massive, linear tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa, this tornado was erratic, changing direction and lifting back up into the sky, and coming down again like a hammer. It would tear through a stretch of woods or along a road, then jump, and re-descend a couple miles away.
I’m not sure that mattered much when it came to people escaping. Many had no idea a storm was coming. For some who did, it made no difference. One report I remember from the aftermath news came from a man in a very small town that was mostly erased by the tornado. He told the paper how his neighbor, an elderly man living alone, was always paranoid about tornadoes. The old man was partly disabled, so the neighbor would check on him whenever there was a storm. He did this as the tornado approached the town; the old man was terrified, inconsolable. When it became obvious that a real tornado was coming, the neighbor realized he had to get back to his house to see to his own family. He tried to bring the old man, but he wouldn’t come. Finally the neighbor got the old man into a closet for some protection. Even though he wouldn’t leave, the old man pleaded with the neighbor to stay. But the neighbor had to go. The tornado came and spared the neighbor’s house, but the old man’s was reduced to kindling, scraped down to the bare foundations. The old man was dead. The thing that frightened him most in the world had killed him.
Tornado winds are strong beyond anything we imagine air to be capable of. The Fujita Scale (and the newer Enhanced Fujita Scale) are levels that at first glance are based on increasing wind speed. But that’s just a guess — a symptom. The Fujita Scale is a scale of damage, a measure of destruction after the fact, with the wind speed just what we imagine might have done the destroying. Tornadoes at the F4 level and up are strong enough to peel pavement off highways. But it’s almost academic trying to classify tornadoes after a certain point, because the destruction is so total that it’s very hard to tell if, say, that car was just flipped over and crushed, or flipped over and thrown into a building, then thrown somewhere else. Try filling up a garbage bag with wineglasses and throwing it across the room, then dumping them out. Would someone who saw the broken glasses know if they’d been thrown, or just dropped on the floor? Or stepped on?
At those high levels of strength, you may not survive a tornado even if you’re not picked up or crushed, because everything becomes a bullet. The cliche of straws being punched through trees is not a joke. The winds drive walls of shrapnel as deadly as any IED. When I was cleaning up after that tornado, I saw a half-smashed cinderblock building with lots of irregular, broken bricks along one face. But they weren’t bricks — they were car batteries embedded in the wall.
It’s hard to wrap your head around storms like this because there is so little we can do about them. There is no such thing as a tornado-proof building, at least not aboveground. I think that’s why tornadoes are so strong and scary, psychologically. We’ve learned all we’re ever going to learn about surviving them. And for those who don’t survive, it wasn’t enough and never will be.