Wednesday, June 02, 2010

It's a Twistah, It's A Twistah! More Notes From The Heartland

So far I have been in Ohio for a day and a half, and I'm impressed. The little college town that was my first stop was a time-travel experience. People leave their doors open when they are away from the house for an errand or a stroll around the neighborhood. Children walk home from the school bus. Slightly older children ride their bikes around town, walk to the main shopping area, go from house to house, finding their friends and hanging out in a generally unsupervised and benign way.

People seemed happy and relaxed.

Between Cleveland and Little College Town is farmland; when I left LCT today to drive to Columbus (about a hundred miles due south), I passed more gorgeous farms, many of which are run by Amish people. The road rolled gently up and down hills, and was lined on both sides with nicely painted white fencing and the occasional family dairy operation. I drove by several horse and buggy outfits: in one, a woman in a long cotton dress and a bonnet was selling fresh strawberries. Well-kept barns, fields full of beef cattle (some of which were newly born), horses, pigs and the occasional llama or goat were nicely laid out around well-painted nineteenth century wood, and sometimes brick, houses trimmed with gingerbread. Periodically I would pass through a little town: one clapboard municipal building had a sign identifying it as the Town Hall and Garage. Signs advertised an Elks golf outing, or a Saturday pancake breakfast benefiting the volunteer fire company.

It's all very different from Shoreline, I must say. Leave your front door open there to go meet your kid at the bus stop and all your furniture will be gone when you return. But one thing we don't worry about much in Shoreline is tornadoes -- although there have been a few in recent memory: in 1989 three twisters converged on the Cathedral Pines in Bantam and turned them into mulch. So tonight as I was driving south through central Ohio, imagine my dismay when the country music station was interrupted by a terrible screech, followed by a tornado warning.

What to do, what to do?

I've been in a similar situation before, where I was a stranger in an unfamiliar weather zone and had no idea whether to take a disaster warning seriously. Once when we were in Kauai a tsunami alert interrupted our TV show: I spent the next six hours sitting out on the lanai waiting for the sea to draw back to Indonesia and then come rushing back to crash down on our heads. Didn't happen then either. But the truth is, although I have always wanted to see a live tornado, as the vicious thunderstorms began to sweep across the highway at alarming speeds, the car was battered by sheets of water and lightning crashed down around us, I was conflicted. My deep concern about whether I should just pull off the highway (something I would have done in the Nutmeg State) was in conflict with my concern that I would just be a sitting duck when a twister tore straight up the highway at me. I admit, I was also a little miffed that the iPhone has no video function, since a video of a twister ripping up the highway towards me would have been a cooler conference souvenir than the tote bag we usually get. The traffic crawled along and I scanned the sky from side to side, as the National Weather Service periodically urged me to take cover and avoid flying debris.

But where would I take cover? Should I stay in my car? Abandon the car and dive in a ditch? (This is the correct answer, as I later discovered.)

Fortunately I never had to figure that out. Although I did see what I learned are called "cloud drops" -- dark cloud formations that appear to be dipping to earth and sometimes turn into tornadoes, there were no actual tornadoes. Lightning hit a house in Pataskala, and power is out all over central Ohio, but I did not have to pull over to the shoulder, abandon the car, rush over to kick the nearest storm cellar and scream "Auntie Em! Auntie Em!" This is the only thing I know how to do in the event of a tornado, and I wondered whether the good people who live in Ohio all the time have better ideas. This is FEMA's idea of what you should do.

Anyway, despite the fact that I did not see a live tornado (at a safe distance), I have had more fun in my first 36 hours in Ohio than should be allowed. Tomorrow: Day One of the 2010 Policy History Conference. My picks for Thursday? Probably the Book Forum on Alan Petigny's The Permissive Society: America, 1941-1965 (Cambridge, 2008); and either the Book Forum on Julian Zelizer's Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security From World War II To The War on Terror (Basic Books, 2009) or "State Abortion Politics And Policy."

See you there. And watch out for flying debris.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Jeezus fuck, that sounds scary!!

BTW, the FEMA advice doesn't say to leave your vehicle for a ditch; it says to leave your vehicle for a sturdy shelter. However, it stupidly (HECKUVA JOB, BROWNIE!) doesn't tell you what to do if you are in a vehicle, but out of range of any shelter.

My guess would be that it is safer to stay in your vehicle than to leave the vehicle and lie in a ditch, reasoning that it is going to require substantially stronger wind to pick up your car and fling it through the air than to pick up your body and fling it through the air. Also, it says that most injuries and fatalities are caused by flying debris, and a vehicle would provide some protection from flying debris.

So, if it were me, I would park my car in as low a point as I could find and get on the floor.

OSU GradStud said...

whatever you do while in C-Bus, find your way to the short north and Jeni's Ice Cream.

Historiann said...

I lived in Ohio for 22 of my 41 years, and never had to dive in a ditch. I did spend several afternoons or early evenings in a basement somewhere, I will admit.

I like your description of what you saw in eastern Ohio. People don't realize how wicked rural most of the state is, once you drive 10 or 15 minutes away from the big cities (plus Columbus and Toledo.)

Take care, TR!

Ellie said...

This sounds like my worst nightmare! Glad you're OK.

As a recent transplant to a Place Not Far From Tornado Alley who's done a ridiculous amount of research on tornado safety, I want to respond to CPP in guise of a PSA: a car really is the last place you want to be. It takes very little to fling the car through the air--cars are very light relative to the strength of the wind and are apparently perfectly designed for being picked up and flung about by tornado winds. If you're in the car when that happens, well, you can imagine the effect that might have. Moreover, the car will offer very little protection from flying debris--it turns out that tornado-force winds can drive things like 2x4s right through the door of the car into whatever is inside. A tornado hit my town soon after I moved here, and what happened to the cars was absolutely insane.

The logic of lying down in the ditch (or otherwise as low as you can get) is to make the smallest possible target for the flying debris, which the tornado will be lifting up away from the ground, and to eliminate any space underneath you where the wind might get in and pick you up. But the biggest danger really is the flying debris, and the sides of the ditch will offer more protection than the car.

Even though I'm convinced by the logic of this, it's still not terribly reassuring, and I think it's criminal that they don't have public storm shelters installed at 10 mile intervals along every interstate!

Out of curiosity, what did people in the other cars do? I'm always looking for tips from those who are more experienced in dealing with tornado weather, but I have gotten the impression here that the natives of tornado-prone areas are generally more sanguine about things than I!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I want to respond to CPP in guise of a PSA: a car really is the last place you want to be.

Your explanation makes a lot of sense. Thanks for correcting my clueless fuckwittery.

Anonymous said...

Can I assume that LCT is Oberlin? (my alma mater, I'm getting misty eyed already...)

Tenured Radical said...

LCT is, indeed, Oberlin. And in answer to Ellie's question, some cars were pulled over to the side of the road (it was very difficult to see even with the wipers on high) but because most of them kept moving, however slowly, I pulled back onto the highway after about 15 minutes and did the same, whilst keeping my eyes peeled.