This is prime season for thunderstorms and tornadoes, for most of the central and southern, and parts of the eastern, United States. We go through it every spring. It’s unnerving to see nature unleashed, bearing down on fragile humans and our spindly architecture, whether it happens states away or just down the road. We usually take precautions, noting weather alerts and securing some form of what people used to (and some, at least in Oklahoma, still do) call, the “fraidy hole.” This YouTube video of Hosty Duo performing “Fraidy Hole” says it all, as the vintage video clips illustrate a timeless cautionary tale.
It’s a fitting song for a stormy subject, with an appropriately dark edge that defies levity while defying danger. Yesterday, on Sunday, May 19, at least twenty six tornadoes moved in a sort of herd across the central plains states. As I understand it, at least two people died during those extreme events and many more families lost every physical object they owned. Today, on May 20, as I write, I learn that one of the worst tornadoes in American history may have just hit Moore, Oklahoma. I can’t imagine the shock and devastation the storm survivors feel. After two days like these, for too many people the dangers of weather are real, and the losses, palpable.
In the midst of yesterday’s storms, we clicked onto The Weather Channel and stayed, riveted by the live, aerial coverage of tornadoes tearing through Oklahoma. The collision of natural forces was magnificent and terrifying. It doesn’t matter that I’m not acquainted with the people of Oklahoma City or Carney or Shawnee. I saw their familiar buildings blown to pieces, to swirl up and around dark, multiplying funnels like trailing ribbon and bits of cardboard, as mine would. I saw flashes of what appeared to be power lines or propane tanks exploding, followed by lights in windows, extinguished. It was eerie, gazing down on all of it. It should have made me feel safe, from an elevated distance. It didn’t.
Of course, we’ve all seen video of similar events and their aftermath on weather station programs, news channels and stormchaser documentaries. As an informed, viewing public, we can tune in worldwide, to view, from a safe distance, the international disaster of the day. We may even become desensitized to much of what we see and tweet. Processing the magnitude of other peoples’ losses with a little emotional distance–this helps to keep us sane. Ignoring it can evacuate our essential empathy.
On the next, more immediate degree of experience, many of us have been sufferers or survivors of thunderstorms, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis or earthquakes. Others have found themselves devastated by human-on-human violence. The pain isn’t borrowed, but so near we can’t shed it. Our losses indelibly mark us. They also provide the essential storytelling material for our personal, family and community myths, the stories of how we surely have fallen, lost and suffered, yet somehow survived as the heroes of our own odysseys. At the core of the stories, we learn that to be human is not only to be scattered, to live on the edge of disaster. It is also to gather and to prevail. These are lessons we teach to our children.
Our children need these lessons. Fragile as we are, from birth we generally display an almost hilarious level of bravado. We can only learn from experience that we’re breakable, as we are born with few self-protective instincts. Often we’re impulsive or careless. Sometimes our illusions of control get us in trouble. Imagining ourselves invulnerable, we may stand outdoors too long, to record that wall cloud. Curiosity and adrenaline can urge us too near the edge of some other cracking, rumbling, rushing or flaming precipice.
Despite being fragile, fallible creatures, many of us don’t embrace our apparent role as victims of the world’s destructive energies. Professional researchers, meteorologists and seismologists, amateur scientists and hobbyists gather data that may not prevent disasters, but may inform us early. If common sense prevails and time permits, that data may give us time enough to flee destruction’s path. Information and technology allow us to encourage people we haven’t met, by telephoning, posting, tweeting and traveling around the world, before and after terrible things happen. The heroic work of rescue, recovery and cleanup usually begins in a moving, but profoundly matter-of-fact way, a testimony to our resilience and faith in one another. Maybe we’re not as fragile as we appear.
This reminds me of an engaging novel, The Stormchasers, by Jenna Blum. Jenna uses the backdrop of stormchasing to explore the troubled relationship between estranged twins, a brother and sister. They, like all of us, look for meaning in the storms that tear us apart and for family myths, the image of ominous weather fits well. Not only do severe storms devastate families, but family members generate emotional storms that devastate the others. Yet, even after structures and hearts appear blown and leveled beyond repair, bonds of family and community re-form, strengthen and multiply. It’s true in this novel, just as it began in these current disaster areas, moments after the storms did their worst. People are talking, hugging, stretching tarps and picking through debris. They are devoted, holding together and proving their strength.
Even as I write this, I turn to The Weather Channel to find that even more severe tornadoes, at least one an EF4, are barreling through Oklahoma, flattening homes, farms, schools and public buildings. Best wishes to and heartfelt prayers for all people (and other creatures) there, for survival. For them and for all who have suffered and will suffer severe storms…may you always find fair warning, hope, open arms and not last or least of all, a fraidy hole.
Beyond these things, there are no more fitting words.
*Find more information on Jenna Blum’s novel, The Stormchasers, here.