This is not about my trailer, but it is about something I am thinking of when I get on the road.
Most of you are aware that I am an incorrigible weather weenie. I geek out over storms of any kind, it’s true. I am fascinated by them, and it’s because they absolutely terrify me. I lived through a tornado in September of 1991, and I never, EVER want to go through that again.
This is why I chase storms. It may seem dichotomous, but the fact is that me chasing storms in a moving vehicle, with which I can get out of their way, is far less scary than sitting inside my stationary home waiting for one to hit me. It returns a sense, however tenuous, of control to the situation.
As I contemplate the fact that I will soon have my entire home on wheels, it scares me quite a bit that I won’t necessarily always have an earth-bound shelter to go to, even if I want to. Chasing storms in a single, fast-moving vehicle is one thing, but towing your home on your back at a maximum of 60 m.p.h. and not always being able to get out of the way if they pop up too quickly is quite another.
So, I find myself in the odd predicament of once again having the control tables turned on me, which is deeply unsettling. Now, instead of being able to get excited from a distance when I hear of tornado warnings, I might well be in the middle of one with no safe place to go. It’s just a fact I’m going to have to get used to, and you can bet I’m taking every precaution and depending on everything I know about weather to minimize those scenarios. Which brings me to today’s topic.
I remember like it was yesterday.
Not many people can say they remember the exact day they first discovered Twitter, but I can. I can even tell you the approximate hour. It was around 3:00 p.m. on the afternoon of May 22, 2008—exactly ten years ago. Here’s why I remember:
My phone rang that day around 1:30 my time. I was working, and picked up the phone to hear my sister’s voice. Uncharacteristically, she didn’t even say hi, just, “Listen to this.” I pictured her in my mind, holding the phone up to something, as I heard a strange clacking sound.
“Is that hail?” I asked.
“Yep. I was out walking the dogs, and I had to come in because it started hailing. It’s about the size of nickels.”
“Wow. This early in the day? It’s not even noon there yet.”
She lived at the time in Windsor, Colorado, a small town directly north of Denver but closer to the Wyoming border in Weld County (which I was later to learn has more tornadoes than any other county in the state).
“Yeah, it’s weird. That’s why I called you. The sky looks odd, too, and it feels really…oppressive outside.”
I didn’t like the sound of that description at all.
“Just a minute,” I said, opening a window on my Web browser. “I’ll check Intellicast Storm Watch radar (now called Interactive Radar). They have an active storm overlay.” I did so, and this is what I saw:
Not everyone would understand what I was looking at, but I did, and it made my heart leap into my throat. That upside-down red triangle symbol just southeast of Fort Collins is a TVS, or Tornadic Vortex Signature. That white “cone of uncertainty” serves the same purpose as they do on hurricane maps, showing the most likely future track.
“Beck,” I croaked, “it may be only radar-indicated, but right now, it looks like there’s a tornado to your southeast. It’s moving northwest—very unusual. They usually travel southwest to northeast. And if you’re getting hail, that means the air is very unstable where you are. Not a good sign.”
Speaking of hail, I could still hear it in the background, only louder and more frequent. “Is that hail getting bigger?”
“Yeah. In fact, I’m standing in the open patio slider with my foot outside, and it’s big enough to sting.”
“About quarter-size, now.”
My hands started to sweat. That hail had gotten significantly larger, very quickly. There was something violent in her immediate vicinity. (I had no idea how violent, but this phone cam video shows the deadly size of the hail over the lake only about a mile from her house. Look at the golf ball-size stones coming down—ironically, on a golf course!—around 1:23.)
I refreshed the Doppler sweep. The TVS had moved closer to Windsor. I didn’t like this at all. I didn’t like wondering whether that signature was only radar-indicated or there was an actual tornado there. It was time to stop fooling around and find out.
This was one of those times when I will be forever grateful for my weather weenie-ness and my good writer research skills. I had known for some time that the Weather Underground site had a good list of weather webcams (which, at that time, was a fairly new thing). I told Becky to hang on while I found one near her.
I went there and found one at Eastman Park, a public greenspace adjacent to the Eastman Kodak Company property, south of her neighborhood. I had taken Becky’s kids to the playground there more than once, and immediately remembered having actually seen that webcam there.
“Perfect!” I thought. If I remembered correctly, it was aimed in the right direction so that, if there were a tornado coming, I would likely be able to see it on that webcam. This map shows the park in relationship to Becky’s neighborhood. The red X is Eastman Park, and the arrow shows the direction the webcam faces. The little yellow guy is Becky’s house at the time.
It was now about 1:45 my time, 11:45 hers. I clicked on the symbol for the Eastman Park webcam. In just a few seconds, this image appeared:
There was the jungle gym I’d played with the kids on, and beyond it, I knew I was looking at a massive wedge tornado, bearing down on my sister’s town, if not her house. I just stared at it for a few seconds, not quite believing what I was looking at, but there was no denying that ugly, terrifying image on my screen. Tears filled my eyes, because I knew what they were in for.
My mouth went completely dry. I tried hard to compose myself because I didn’t want to scare her too bad, but I also wanted her to understand how dire her circumstances now were.
“Beck,” I managed, “there is a massive wedge tornado headed your way. I’m looking at it right now on the Eastman Park webcam. Quick guess based on the radar, it’s maybe 3 miles away from you right now and coming fast.”
“What?” She was either not understanding what I meant, or was not believing me.
“A huge wedge tornado, the kind that’s wider than it is tall. Those kind are usually at least F3 in strength, often stronger. You need to get in the basement. Gather the dogs and make them go down there with you. Get under the heaviest table you can find. Pull a blanket over you and the dogs, and don’t come back up until the noise has passed.”
“You’ll know. Now go, you don’t have much time. Take your phone with you. Call me when it’s over, okay?”
“I can’t believe this.”
“Beck, I am dead serious. You are in real danger. If you ever believed me in your life, believe me now. Now get down there. Go!”
“Becky, go! I love you! Promise to call when it’s over!”
“O…kay…love you, too…” She hung up. The next several hours would be an excruciating wait for any news.
I should have known what her hesitation was about. It wasn’t that she literally didn’t believe me. It was that she was having a hard time taking it in, and she had four kids in two different schools at the moment. My sister is the ultimate mom, and I should have known that it was their safety, not her own, that was going through her head. But thank God I didn’t realize it, because if I had known what she would do next, I would have completely lost my mind.
She said later that she did go into the basement for a few minutes, but didn’t hear anything and was too worried about the kids. So she came back up and then—yes, she actually DID this—went out, got in her van, and drove to the elementary school to pick the kids up. Directly in the path of that twister.
There’s lots more to this side of the story, but it’s rather beside the point of this post. Suffice to say that they all lived to tell the tale, but truly…just barely. By about a block’s distance, if that. They definitely got inside the tornado’s circulation.
Meanwhile, I was so worried, I kept working all the information sources I could find. I opened a new window for the Storm Prediction Center and found this tornado warning map at 11:48:
As you can see, Windsor sits between Greeley and Fort Collins. There was no way the town was going to be missed. Since I was already at Weather Underground, I switched views to the Doppler radar for the Windsor area. At 11:55 local time, this is what I saw:
That deepest red area—the tornado—is just on the south side of Windsor. Right about then, it was ravaging the town. I was blissfully unaware that my sister and her kids were out driving in that.
I jumped over to another webcam site, the now-defunct WeatherBonk.com. This was what I saw from the Channel 9 News webcam, mounted at the wind farm in Fort Collins at 12:15 local time:
Now I got a good look at the whole monster. I knew it was barreling down on this webcam, and kept switching back to it every few moments, between looking for other sources. The twister filled more and more of the screen each time. Within about ten minutes, this is all that was transmitting (though I took this screen grab quite a while later, as I gathered my wits):
For too long, there was no new information, and no call from Becky. Just after 12:30 Windsor local time, I found a series of weather spotter reports beginning to come in to Weather Underground. There was a whole slew of them, but it was the two most recent that had my stomach in a knot:
- 05/22/2008 1148 am Windsor, Weld County. Hail m1.00 inch, reported by trained spotter.
- 05/22/2008 1154 am Windsor, Weld County. Hail m1.50 inch, reported by trained spotter. Storm moving N
One-and-a-half-inch hail? It had gone from nickel to bigger than golf ball-size in ten minutes? Oh, God. The storm was intensifying. This was bad.
By about 2:40, the only thing I had found was this news bulletin on Google News:
I just kept searching and scrolling and searching and scrolling. Finally, around 3:00, as I thought I would go out of my mind with worry, I finally got a break. In response to my search string, “Windsor Colorado tornado,” all these short little snippets started to show up. From their contents, they looked like some kind of small posts, being sent by people who had been hit by the tornado.
“What is all this?” I wondered aloud. But I just kept scrolling and watching. I began to see the word “Twitter” here and there, but had no idea what that was. I didn’t know there was such a site, but at some point, I clicked on one of those posts (sorry, this was the one point where I forgot to take screen shots. I was just too worried and scared to think about that anymore), and it jumped me over to Twitter.com.
Again, I knew nothing about the site or how it worked, and keep in mind: There was no such thing yet as “hashtags.” But I did see a search box, and just kept entering that same search string, and refreshing my screen. When the action would slow down, I would click around, exploring the site. I figured out I could join the site for free, so I did. And I’ve been a fairly avid Twitter user ever since.
In fact, because it kept me from losing my mind that day, I will personally always have a soft spot in my heart for Twitter. And as a member at that time of our local Emergency Management Agency, I learned firsthand how vital and valuable it could be.
It wasn’t until between 5:30 and 7:00 p.m. (I can’t remember exactly any more) that I was finally able to get a call through to Becky’s cell phone. The connection was tenuous and we knew it, so we only talked about the important things.
I learned that she and her family were all safe. Their neighborhood got hit, but it was only in the outer bands of the circulation, so they got off relatively easy compared to Old Town Windsor, and the Cottonwood section of their development, which were the two hardest-hit areas in the city.
You can bet I will be weather aware every day I’m out on the road. And though it will pain my storm chaser’s heart to do so, when I am towing my rig, I will be running away from those storms, not toward them. And I will have on board the most sophisticated weather station I can afford, including a very good barometer.
And hey, if you want to catch up with me on Twitter during outbreaks, I tweet both at @wildheartwandrs (length restrictions made me drop the final “e”) about RV-related topics including the weather, and at @stormdiaries, my weather-specific feed.
See you there!
P.S. – The featured image at the top of this post was taken by my sister a very short time after the storm passed, just blocks from her house.