Last night was scary, to say the least. Even though North Carolina is threatened far more often by hurricanes, they don’t scare me nearly as much as tornadoes. For one thing, you can see hurricanes coming for days. You have plenty of time to evacuate. Even if one is bearing down on you, you know more or less how it’s going to play out. It’s going to be windy, then it’s going to be real windy, then it’s going to be insanely windy, then it’s going to be strangely calm, then the cycle repeats in reverse. It’s definitely life-threatening, but I can take measures.
But tornadoes — good grief. Tornadoes are like ravaging beasts: wild, unpredictable, vicious, capricious; they seem to have a mind of their own. Obliterating one side of the street and leaving the other unmolested. Touching down without warning, sometimes hopping back up again to touch down again elsewhere, they basically pounce on you out of the sky, and the best meteorologists can do as far as warning you is to let you know the conditions are likely for tornadoes to form. I guess it’s the uncertainty that gets me. According to city-data.com, tornado activity in Greensboro is historically 16% smaller than the overall U.S. average, but there has been at least one other one since I have lived here, so I am well aware of the possibility.
So, last night a line of severe storms tore through North Carolina, and even though communities like Winston Salem suffered major damage to residential areas, it was Greensboro, hit by a lone but devastating tornado, that had the sad distinction of having a fatality: Donald Needham, a 51-year-old truck driver from Jackson Springs, N.C., who died when the high winds flipped his delivery truck. Three other people suffered injuries in the storm. I live in Greensboro, and the storm cell passed right over my house. It was a terrifying experience.
Earlier in the evening, while watching the evening news, I watched local meteorologist Lanie Pope describing the storm cell that was over Mt. Airy (that’s “Mayberry” for you Andy Griffith fans) at the time. The pinkish-purple blob on the radar looked threatening indeed, but Greensboro wouldn’t be in the path of that storm, and so I just hoped for the best for the people in the area and turned off the telly for the evening in favor of some reading. I glanced out the window, noting how amazing it was that the area northwest of us was dealing with a giant thunderstorm and high winds, while a barely perceptible breeze gently riffled the treetops in my backyard. The catch here is that I didn’t bother to check the area radar for any coming storms that would hit Greensboro…
Hours later — it was around midnight, and I was already in bed — I was awakened by the storm. At first, it was just your regular summer thunderstorm. I usually find it quite soothing to lie in bed and listen to the rain and wind outside, but in my mind’s eye, I could clearly see that ominous pinkish-purple blob on the radar screen, so I lay there warily, my ears attuned to the changing pitch of the wind. It started to get stronger; gusts began to buffet the sides of the house. Rain was falling steadily, but the wind made the most noise. Even though I had been asleep just minutes before, I was completely alert, practically vibrating with awareness. I can imagine that the hairs on my skin might well have been standing on end as I lay in the darkness with my eyes wide open.
Suddenly, the touch-lamp on my bedside table turned itself on. There must have been some sort of power surge from the storm; as you might imagine, this only heightened my anxiety. The wind grew stronger, and suddenly, I heard the noise that sent me down the stairs, calling to my husband to help me get the cats and to get into the downstairs bathroom, which is almost the perfect storm shelter. It is right in the middle of the lowest floor and doesn’t have any windows. I say almost because there’s no tub to hide in, but I’m fully prepared to hug the toilet like a long-lost friend if and when it comes to that. The noise I heard was shingles being torn from the roof! I couldn’t yet hear the unmistakable ‘freight train’ noise, but there were only seconds to spare.
My husband, who fancies himself an expert in such things, asserted that we were in no danger because the power hadn’t gone out. As I deposited our two cats in the bathroom, I reminded him that our neighborhood power lines were underground and switched on the television. The pink blob from my worst fears was directly over our neighborhood! And yet, the wind outside was dying down somewhat. My scoffing spouse retired upstairs, but I kept my furkids in the safe spot and continued to monitor the weather report. The tornado warning was in effect until 1 a.m., and it was only about 12:30 or so at this time. As I watched the news report that golf-ball-sized hail had reportedly come down in the area right near my home, I realized that that was what I had heard throttling the roof. I checked the deck and saw the hail, which was actually marble-sized.
At that point, things seemed to have calmed down outside and the radar showed clear skies beyond the storm that had just passed, so I let my fuzzbutts out of their temporary lockup. The weather reports seemed pretty redundant at that point, but there was no way I was going back to sleep, so I figured I would try to relax by watching my Thursday-night shows, CSI and ER, on my DVR. I was nonplussed to find that the entire evening’s programming on both channels had been completely pre-empted by storm coverage, but when I returned to live coverage, the news that a tornado had actually touched down — not far from my old neighborhood, actually — made my inconvenience look very minor. The tornado struck a predominantly industrial area, so there’s some comfort to be had in knowing people’s homes were spared, but it certainly won’t make the Needham family’s grief any less. My heart goes out to them, and I know that even though I did not experience that kind of loss, I definitely felt the terror of the storm.