Tuesday, May 21, 2013


The remains of Park Towers Elementary School, Moore, OK

Yet again, Moore, OK is leveled by a monster tornado. I was watching some of the live coverage from the Oklahoma City teevee stations yesterday. Again and again, they remarked on how the storm track was almost identical to the May 3, 1999 tornado that destroyed much of the town. I recalled that one fairly well because of some personal connections we had with people who were from Moore. But this tornado was of an altogether different character... one of the helicopter pilots said he'd flown over the destruction in Moore in 1999, and to his eye, the situation yesterday looked like it was "three times worse."

The destruction in Moore looked to me somewhat like Joplin a couple of years ago, and it gives me the willies to see anything like that. This level of complete wipe-out of entire sections of cities is almost unbelievable, or it would be if we hadn't already seen it over and over and over again, not solely from tornadoes, but from earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes as well...

I've only been through one tornado warning, and that was outside St. Louis decades ago. There were no shelters or storm cellars nearby, naturally, and so I asked a neighbor what, exactly, we were supposed to do if a tornado touched down. He laughed and said, "Duck and pray." Luckily, the tornado did not touch down, and so after the sirens stopped, we all went back about our business as if nothing (much) was awry.

Until recently, there had only been the rarest reports of "tornado-like winds" in California's Central Valley, and then suddenly there was a rash of them year after year. Weather-people refused at first to call them "tornadoes" -- even though that's what they looked like, and their damage was the damage you'd expect from tornadoes, albeit small ones -- because officially tornadoes couldn't happen in California's Central Valley. This reticence became absurd after a while. The theory was that there wasn't enough room for tornado cells to develop between the coastal mountains and the Sierras, so even though there might be occasional episodes of spiraling winds, they weren't "tornadoes" because they didn't get big enough to classify. Eventually, the absurdity became even too much for officials. Suddenly what had been long denied was admitted -- officially -- to be true.

One day,  I was watching the sky from the westward downslope of the Sierra, and I saw four funnel clouds in a line from north to south; two of them touched down, and I could see debris flying in the air, in no way different than a midwest tornado except for size. I would see similar sights again and again over the next few years, as tornadoes (and water spouts) formed and blasted their way through (mostly) farm fields, but every now and then taking out a shed or blowing off a house roof or uprooting a tree or two. There wasn't a lot of damage reported from what eventually became many tornadoes and water spouts, but the very sight of these funnel clouds and the winds that they produced was enough to give a lot of people pause. It seemed to be, among other things, an obvious sign of Climate Change.

Tornadoes are said to be possible -- but rare -- in New Mexico. If they happen, they happen mostly over on the Texas side of the state, from about Santa Rosa eastward, but something tells me they could happen just about anywhere, including the Estancia Basin -- maybe especially here, because of the lay of the land.

Nothing like a tornado has actually occurred since we've been here, but for the last few days, the afternoon winds have been pretty severe -- I'm thinking these winds have been feeding into the cells that produce tornadoes farther east -- and yesterday the dust briefly became so severe that I literally could not see more than 50 feet in front of me. The dust has become a real hazard. It gets into everything, of course, but when it comes up -- which it does more and more often -- it blocks visibility. Not good to be out driving in it. We were familiar enough with the winds here -- that's been a constant -- but the dust is something new for us, and I don't think we like it. The tantalizing rain clouds that don't drop any rain -- they come and go practically every day now -- are almost worse than the dust. I wonder if anybody's tried to seed them... I remember when I was a child, cloud seeding was routine in Southern California, and sometimes it would cause fairly good rainfall. Does anybody bother anymore? If so, I don't recall hearing about it...

The tornado situation in the midwest and plains has been one of those constants for generations on end. The area is "prone" as they say, and there is little or nothing that can be done about it. Back in the day, of course, practically everybody had a storm cellar, but not anymore. Not only are houses commonly built without cellars at all, they often don't have any kind of safe room above ground either. Of course, the "double wide tornado catcher" is legendary -- but also all too true -- in the region, with the routine wiping out of entire mobile home parks expected during Tornado Season. Before yesterday, in fact, it was the demolition of a mobile home park and the death of an elderly resident in Oklahoma that led the tornado news...

But yesterday's path of destruction in Moore was something else again. I grieve for the loss of people and livestock (apparently up to 100 horses were killed at a stable that was destroyed by the tornado)  caught in the path of the storm. It's a horrible thing to imagine let alone witness. The level of catastrophe at the Park Towers Elementary School is still being assessed. They say as many a 40 children may still be unaccounted for and presumed to be buried in the debris. Up to a hundred people have been dug out from underground shelters (so there are some!) since last night.

And of course, more storms are developing across the whole state of Oklahoma...

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