Extreme weather makes for exciting news. There’s certainly a lot of time spent covering the hurricanes that sweep the NC coast each year. Some poor newscaster is usually decked out like the Gorton’s Fisherman, while rain lashes and wind buffets. Normally only the aftermath of tornadoes is seen on the news. Felled trees and power lines feature heavily.
These violent displays of nature are awesome and fascinating to me, from a distance. Up close, they can be genuinely terrifying and utterly humbling when facing the forces involved. To see mature trees ripped from the earth and scattered like matchsticks, or vehicles tumbled by surging floodwater, leaves me speechless and feeling fortunate to have survived.
Several years ago, we had a close call with a tornado. There are no basements in most homes around me. The water table is too high to make them practical. The best we could do was find an interior hallway as far from windows as we could manage. I held the dogs, one panting and trembling during the thunder and the other more concerned with the wandering cat. The cat, oblivious to the danger, sauntered through the kitchen after escaping us. He wanted a drink of water.
My son was more excited than scared. My wife held him, and we did our best to maintain calm faces and voices. I watched through the kitchen windows as the trees bent nearly double by the wind and the sky darkened. The rain drummed against the glass of the storm door. Weather alerts squawked from our cell phones, telling us that a tornado had touched down near our neighborhood. My mind raced to thoughts of trees crashing into the roof. I tried not to grind my teeth to powder.
It was over quickly. The wind calmed, and the rain slackened to a drizzle. No trees came down on the house or in our back yard, proof of the flexibility of the pines. We freed the dogs and kid. Slowly we ventured out to assess the damage. Our house was one of the lucky few left unscathed. My son pointed across the street and said, “Where’s their tree?” My wife pointed to the house nextdoor and replied, “There.” The tree had been blown into the neighbor’s garage and through her front window.
Out back, there was a smell we couldn’t identify. We should’ve recognized it immediately, but for some reason we didn’t. There was a hissing sound, and we realized there was a gas leak nearby. We rushed out front to talk to people and make sure we weren’t crazy. Word was being passed that we needed to evacuate our neighborhood until the leak could be capped off.
We hurried the dogs into the car, no sign of the cat, and left. It was crowded in that Chevy Prizm, and my son was soon tired of sharing the back seat with the mutts. We decided on the park, since we would be able to take the dogs out and walk around a bit. Small, uprooted trees were scattered about, but none blocked the road.
We spent a couple of hours in the park before deciding we should head home. The neighborhood wasn’t blocked off, so we assumed it was safe to return. We drove past our house, wanting to assess the damage on our street. That’s when we saw where the gas leak must have originated, just a few blocks away. The house had been torn from its foundation and blown into the home nextdoor, where it had pulverized half of the second story. We learned later that the dislodged home had been thankfully vacant at the time of the storm.
I still get a little nervous every time the clouds roll in and the wind picks up this time of year. I think about how close we came to losing our home, possibly our lives. It was the first time I had experienced a tornado since moving to NC from NY in 1996. It probably won’t be the last. When I talk to NC natives about it, they laugh it off like it’s just a right of passage, even my wife. I look at them like they’re crazy. Then it dawns on me that it’s the same look they give me when I tell them they’ve never seen a real snow storm.