Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Death from the Skies

One of the tornados of the 1974 super outbreak



Last night was an incredibly stormy affair in my part of Ohio. Gale force winds, torrential rain, and hail. A tornado touched down north of Cincinnati. 

I checked the local weather on my phone at 3:41 a.m.: The National Weather Service had issued a tornado warning for my part of the Cincinnati area. We were advised to take cover. 

The storms continue as I type this. There are more tornado warnings; and I am hoping that the electricity doesn't go out. 

I have long had a dread of severe thunderstorms and tornados. I was six years old in 1974, when the super outbreak of that year produced 148 tornados in a 24-hour period, in a vast swath of the country stretching from northern Georgia to southern Michigan. Thirty of these tornados were of the highly destructive F4/F5 category. 

I was in Louisville with my parents during the outbreak. My mother and I were accompanying my father on one of his sales trips. 

I distinctly remember my parents watching the sky from the doorway of our room at the Holiday Inn. They let me look, briefly. I barely understood the concept of tornados then; but some primeval instinct, perhaps, told me that the condition of the skies was very dangerous, indeed. We actually saw a funnel cloud. But we were lucky: The tornado skipped over us. 

A few days later, I was with my parents as they drove through Xenia, Ohio, which was devastated by one of the outbreak’s more powerful tornados. Xenia looked like a war zone. There were shattered buildings and rubble everywhere.

We have a lot of confidence in ourselves as rational, innovative human beings, and not without justification, perhaps. But it takes little more than a really bad storm—a killer storm (319 people died as a result of the 1974 super outbreak)—to remind us how fragile we really are. 

It takes so little to kill one of us—to kill a large number of us, in fact.  

This realization may or may not make you turn to spiritual reflection; but it should humble you, at the very least. It certainly humbles me. I have an iPhone in my pocket that enables me to watch video feeds from China, to send emails, and to measure how many steps I take in a day. Yet my vulnerability to the raw power of nature is not much different than it might have been had I been born a hundred years earlier. 

Death can still, quite plausibly, come from the skies—for any of us. And I’m not talking about something as high-tech and exotic as a nuclear missile attack. I’m talking about something as primitive and mundane as the weather.