Tuesday, May 5, 2009


A Yahoo News headline about the bad weather in the southern states  caught my eye today. It included a link to find out what a 'derecho' is. I didn't need to click it,  but I did  anyway and boy did it bring back memories. 


"... a widespread and long lived windstorm that is associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms."

Three years ago I didn't know the word derecho.  I knew what a tornado was, of course.  You can't grow up in the midwest and not be familiar with tornados. 

Midwesterners treat the possibility of tornados with an odd combination of deep respect and offhandedness.  A Midwesterner can walk outside and "feel" that its tornado weather.  And when the sky starts turning a particular shade of green, a Midwesterner starts to look for shelter even if no one has told her to.  On the other hand, it is possible for the tornado sirens to be blaring away and for people on the streets to be paying no attention.  A look at the sky, a sniff of the air.  It can tell you that the bad weather isn't near you.

Tornado sirens go off over the entire city, but the city is a big place.  A few times in my life a tornado has touched down in the northern part of the city while we in the southern part enjoyed nothing more than a rain shower.  I recall one day walking into the St. Louis County Administrative building only to be told by the guard that I either needed to leave or go to the basement.  Didn't I hear the tornado warnings, he asked?  Well.  Yeah.  But there was no bad weather within miles.  I could see that and feel that.  St. Louis County, however, treats EVERY tornado warning like the warning it is (which is only right).  So I went to the basement with the county workers, the sheriff's department and a bride and groom who were on their way to the courts to get married.  We hung out for about 20 minutes until the all clear sounded and then moved on about our business.  I don't recall anyone being the least bit nervous.

When I was a kid the tornado sirens were the old World War II air raid sirens. They hung on the telephone polls and when they went off they started off slowly, beginning with a deep bass and whirring slowly to a steady baritone.  There was one about 100 yards from our house and that sucker was LOUD.  You couldn't miss it when it went off.  We always went to the basement - although sometimes if my mom wasn't home we'd stand in the garage with my dad watching the weather get nearer until he'd say "it's time".  Then we'd head downstairs.  It was a real pain when they went off in the night, waking us from a sound sleep.  But better safe than sorry.   Now they have newer sirens but I think they are harder to hear and although I've always woken in the night when they go off I sometimes fear that some night I'll sleep through them.

But the day we experienced the derecho?  We had no warning.  None whatsoever.

It was three years ago.  July 19, 2006. 

It was a hot day.  A really hot day.   A St. Louis heat wave day.  It had been a year of bad weather.  I remember going to the basement in the middle of the night a couple of times that spring and summer.  But that day was sunny and clear but very, very hot. I remember that when I left my office in mid-county I could tell that they were getting some weather to the north of the city, I could see it in my rear view mirror as I drove south.  But overhead it was clear.  

I got home from work about 6:30 and changed and ate something.  Then I went upstairs to my office and was straightening up some things. It was maybe about 7:30 by this time.  It was still quite light out, in July it stays light until almost 9:00. I was thinking I should turn on the radio and listen to the Cardinals game; they were playing the Braves that night.  They were in the new stadium that year. 

My home office windows face south and east.  To the south the view was blue sky and the beginning of a golden evening light.  To the east it was also blue sky.  I don't remember now why I went into my guest bedroom but I did.  It has a window that faces north and I could see really dark clouds far to the north.  I didn't give it much thought.  They were moving fast but they were northeast of me.  Weather here moves from west to east, sometimes from north to south, often from south to north but NEVER from east to west.  These clouds were already moving into the northeast so they were passing us by. 

About ten minutes later I went back into that room for something, looked out the window and did a double take.  Was the storm moving towards me?  That didn't seem possible.  For that to happen, a storm that had been heading east would have to stop, change direction and start to come in from the northeast.  How likely was that?  Not very. But I stood at the window and watched.  It was moving fast, a wall of dark clouds, deep dark gray and some almost black.  And yes it WAS headed my way.  The storm had turned. 

Well, that was weird.

But there were no tornado sirens going off.  I went back to my office, flipped on the TV and flipped around stations, but  I couldn't even find a T-Storm warning.   I headed back to the other room.  Good grief that storm was moving fast.  Really fast.  It was now over the near northern part of the city heading southwest and it was massive.  The wind in front of it was starting to blow a little but the sky was bright blue where I was. 

I stood at my second floor window and watched it roll in, watched the wind start to swirl debris around, watched the wind start to blow the trees in my back yard.  The old flowering crab that was half dead looked like it might fall over.  My wooden fence was starting to sway back and forth.  I began to wonder if it would make it through the storm intact.  The branches on the old soft maple trees were now whipping back and forth and the black clouds were only a mile or so away. 

It's weird that there are no tornado warnings, I thought.  And then suddenly I thought - what the hell are you doing standing in front of this glass window in winds like these (it's the flying glass and debris that will kill you in a tornado).   I walked away and thought, maybe I should go to the basement.  But there were NO tornado sirens going off.  I (stupidly) went back to the window and looked out.  The wind was now, if possible, blowing even harder and I thought to myself, that crab tree is going to be uprooted and the wind is going to bring it right into this house.  Get the HELL away from the window.

The sky wasn't green, there was no tornado "weather" smell and there were no tornado sirens.  But I flew down two flights of stairs to the basement, stopping only to grab my sneakers on the way down (you should always wear shoes during a storm so you don't step on broken glass) and my little portable black and white TV.  My basement isn't the most comfortable place to cower during a storm, there isn't any comfortable furniture down there, but there is a radio and flashlights.  But I wouldn't have been comfortable even if there had been furniture.  

I turned on the little TV and finally (FINALLY) the weather people were on telling everyone to take shelter as fast as possible.  But there was still no tornado warning. 

I had an old-style glass basement window on the north side of the basement and I realized I needed to be as far away from it as possible.   I could hear the wind getting even louder.  How was that possible when THERE WERE NO TORNADO SIRENS?  I finally decided to open the door to my walk-in cedar closet and stand in it.  In a tornado you should always go to an enclosed space with no windows  and that was the best I could do in case the storm blew out the basement windows.  I've never done it before; I've never done it since. I stood in the cedar closet with the door not completely closed, listening to the storm.  I've never been as scared in a storm as I was right then. 

And then it was over.   The wind stopped.  I went upstairs and I could see blue sky peeping out in the north.  I'm not even sure if it rained, all I remember is the wind. 

I still had electricity.  For about 5 more minutes.  And then it was gone.    It was the largest power outage in our history, more than 1,200,000 residents were without power.  Some people didn't get power back for three weeks, all the while the temperature was hovering at about 100 degrees.  They called out the national guard to go door to door helping people.  You couldn't buy ice at any price.  People who had old fashioned phones that plug into the wall and don't need electricity were the only ones with phone service after the cell phone batteries lost their charges. I was lucky, my power was back in four days and my parents never lost power so I had a place to go that had air conditioning.

What the hell was it that went through that day?  It was like nothing we had ever seen before.  The weather people kept insisting it wasn't a tornado. But there had been 80-100 mph winds.  So what was it?

Finally they told us that it was a derecho.   I hope I never see another one in my lifetime.