I’ve lived in the Midwest pretty much my entire 29+ years of life, and have never seen a tornado in real life.
After last night, I still haven’t seen a tornado, but for the first time in my life I heard one come through.
I was working late last night and decided to call it a day a little before 19:00. Just before I left, Jamie called and informed me that she and the kids were taking shelter in the bathroom (the only room in the house without an outer wall) and that the power was out. The tornado sirens were going off around our home, though there wasn’t any warning being given yet further south where I work. So I got in the car and was hoping to beat the storm home. Yeah right, dummy.
I drove up the street from my plant to the highway and I thought I saw the rain coming. Up in front of me was a big hazy area that looked like sheets of rain headed toward me. Except it wasn’t heading toward me, and it wasn’t rain. I drove into a large cloud of dust all the while poised to turn on my windshield wipers. Instead, I got into a whiteout.
An intelligent person would have turned back at that point and weathered out the storm in his comfy steel and concrete workplace. But in my defense, my main concern was to get home to take care of my family. So I kept driving.
The dust cloud cleared quickly, but the sky behind it was dark. I turned north onto the highway, traveling through a traffic light that was already without power. My commute takes me along the Chain of Rocks Canal and eventually along the Mississippi northward (or southward, if I’m going to work), following the levees on the eastern side of the river. As I started northward, the wind picked up even more. My car was rocked from side to side by large gusts, and debris was flying everywhere. As I went past the local Wal-Mart, I saw a flash off to the west. It was an electrical transformer exploding. I saw a succession of transformers blowing up on that same line heading east, one by one at the speed of electrons in a high voltage wire.
I was starting to worry about getting hit by a power line coming down or some other debris when a very large piece of cardboard hit the driver’s side windshield and side window, obstructing my view. Fortunately I was driving slowly, and it blew away quickly. There weren’t very many other idiots on the road at this point — just me and a handful of other nitwits.
I continued driving northward hoping to get behind the front, which seemed to be moving south-southwest (I found out later that my observations were correct — the storm cell spun off a fast moving front and headed southwest smack dab into the center of St. Louis).
Then it started raining. Pouring, really. Big sheets of rain that reduced visibility to about 20-30 feet. I was trying to find a good place to pull over, away from trees and power lines and billboards that might decide to migrate all of a sudden. About 2 miles and 15 minutes after I left my office, I found a side road with some moderately tall trees that were far enough away from the road not to be a danger to me while at the same time providing something of a wind break. A few other vehicles were sheltering in the same area. I pulled over and turned off the engine to ride out the storm.
The wind kept getting stronger and stronger, really moving the car. I had parked broadside to the wind with the car leaning into it on the shoulder of the road. Plus there was the wind break created by the trees. Otherwise I would have really worried about the car tipping over. Then I heard the rumble. It sounded like a freight train, just like it’s always described. I couldn’t see for more than about 10 feet in any direction, and the rain was coming in sideways. The noise lasted for about 15-20 seconds, although it felt like a lot longer. Then it started to die away, and everything calmed down. A bunch of us got in a line and started heading back north through the still-downpouring rain.
When I finally got off the highway, the town I cut through to get up to my area (up on the bluffs) was in shambles. There was debris everywhere, trees all over the road, and the storm sewers were backing up fast. The Really Big Oil Refinery that is in the area was getting struck by lightning every few seconds, and a couple of large oil storage tanks were on fire. When I went to turn down the last road before I get to my development, it was blocked off due to downed wires. I had to drive back down into the lowlands and find another way to my house. In all, my 25 minute commute lasted about an hour.
When I finally got home, some 15.5 hours since I had left it that morning, there was a dull orange sunset and a beautiful rainbow stretching all the way across the sky. And lots of tree limbs and leaves on the ground. Blessedly none of my family or neighbors were hurt, and our house survived unscathed as well.
We made it through the hot night without power, and I woke up to more of the same. Fortunately we still have clean water. I came into work this morning to look for damage, but expecting the lights not to come on. They did, though. A mixed blessing, I suppose. My workplace was pretty much unscathed. Apparently the line that feeds our transformer also feeds a hospital farther down the line, so power was restored to our plant quickly. But as I write, more than 350,000 people (including me and my family) are without power on the hottest day of the year, and from my personal damage estimate it will be a few days before it will all be restored.
That’s long enough for now. I’m ready to go back home to the candlelight and sweatfest that will be tonight at our house.