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The twisted impact of twisters

Some people spent their youth in the dog house. Others, in the closet. Like many Kansans, I spent mine in the basement, not so much groveling as I was reveling in fear — a memory vividly recalled Friday night.

To a grade school kid huddled in subterranean safe harbor against a storm, basements are wonderful places. Neighbors without them come over during warnings, and piles of stuff haphazardly stored provide ample opportunity to play again with what previously was retired — all the while morbidly speculating about which wall above us will collapse first.

Why I wasn’t fascinated by the thought of stepping outside and letting the whirling wind lift me, as I had seen on TV, from a black-and-white world to a colorful one, becoming a hero by killing a wicked witch in the process, I don’t know. A perilous penchant for storm-chasing came much later.

The sad fact is, no one had actually gone to any of our town’s basements when the one and only tornado to hit Marion in a half century arrived one spring morning of my long-ago senior year in high school.

Despite a complete lack of watches, warnings, or even raised eyebrows, I actually had predicted it the night before, making me later wonder why I never bothered to set myself up as a telephone psychic, finding my fortune by telling others theirs.

When Marion’s only tornado actually did hit, I was fast asleep. Like a good teen-ager, I didn’t even wake up when debris slammed into my bedroom window, breaking it.

Back in those days, if power stayed on, summer evenings were spent watching Cecil Carrier point at fuzzy black-and-white images, looking for tiny hooks in radar echoes on a contraption that looked like it belonged to Major Astro. Cecil came on only briefly, however. There were, after all, TV shows to watch and commercials to sell. We didn’t have today’s continuous coverage, gushing over storms 300 miles away that aren’t really doing anything.

Something’s happened to weather warnings. We now live nearly every day with some part of the massive Wichita-Hutchinson-plus TV market under some sort of alert. Woe be anyone who wants to actually watch a complete TV show over the air or who is annoyed by constantly crawling messages about how burgeoning crews of broadcast meteorologists are working round the clock to keep us safe.

Truth is, no one’s safe from a tornado, and in some cases, over-eager weather spotters seeing tornadoes in every cloud, like would-be Joe McCarthys spotting communists in every government office, can cause as much trouble as they prevent.

Most folks hereabouts seem quite happy that powers-that-be played it safe and powered up virtually every tornado siren in the county Friday night even though almost none of the confirmed tornadoes were anywhere near where the sirens went off and, by the time they sounded, had done their best Elvis impersonation and left the county.

Truth is, rushing to clamor down basement stairs can be just as deadly as any twister, especially to people with limited mobility.

Continually hearing that the sky is falling — or, more specifically, that funnels are dropping from it — can make us grow complacent and doubtful, ignoring shelter when it truly is needed and, worse yet, rushing out to look at weather that’s supposed to be too dangerous to experience without protection.

Many myths surround how weather is observed and reported. Did you know, for example, that radar signals shown on TV, websites, and mobile devices frequently are five, 10, even 15 minutes delayed? With most tornadoes lasting only a few minutes, that delay means that by the time you see a warning, the danger most likely has passed.

Even if you have an actual live feed from the weather service to deliver warnings the instant they are declared, there’s a time lag between when an observer sees something, when it is relayed to meteorologists, and when it is confirmed by radar before a decision is made to issue a warning.

Don’t take this to mean we’re urging you not to take shelter next time a siren blows. You most definitely should. But maybe, if observers and siren-activators were just a bit more judicious, you could be sure that alerts were serious and not just the musings of Henny Penny and Chicken Little.

Sometimes, the best way to save lives is not by playing it safe and issuing so many warnings that people begin ignoring them or take unnecessary precautions that risk their health as much as the potential danger might.

Then again, everyone has an opinion about the weather. That’s just mine.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified May 4, 2022

 

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