Tornado Weather

     I knew I had to hurry, because time was short.
     I’ve lived in the Midwest all of my life so I know tornado weather and last Wednesday had all the right ingredients. It was warm, humid and a cold front was moving in – the same one that had moved across Joplin three days before.
     Everyone seemed on edge, probably because we were still talking about what had happened in Joplin, 5 hours southwest of St. Louis, when an EF-5 tornado, the strongest measurable tornado, ripped through town, killing at least 130 people as it cut a path of destruction 6 miles long and up to a mile wide. Now the weather system was heading toward St. Louis.
     I got to the County Courthouse a little early that day. As I parked, the sky had turned darker and the first few raindrops were falling on my windshield. I hurried up to the fifth floor to the summons department, where twice my usual caseload awaited me.
     Kim, one of the summons clerks, had tuned a radio to the weather updates. As I started to go through my cases, the tornado warnings began – meaning the first funnel clouds had been spotted. I live in Jefferson County, just south of St. Louis; and 10 minutes later a warning was issued for my county.
     My first thought was my wife and kids who were at home. My wife had a chemotherapy treatment that morning and the treatments make her tired. The last thing she told me was that she was going to take a nap. Unlike St. Louis County, Jefferson County has no tornado sirens to warn people. I called my wife. No answer. I tried again and again and finally on the fourth try I finally heard her groggy voice answer. I told her about the warning and told her to take the kids to the basement.
     Tornadoes don’t give you much warning. If you have no basement, you rush into an interior room without windows. It isn’t as good as a basement, but at least it will shield you from flying glass from shattered windows if you take a direct hit.
     I wasn’t my normal self. Between worrying about my family and rushing through my cases, I was making stupid mistakes that cost me time to fix. I had just five cases left when the tornado warning was issued for St. Louis. Everyone in the courthouse was evacuated to the basement.
     I closed my laptop and stuffed it into my bag with the scanner and ran down the five flights of stairs to the basement, with everyone else in the building. It was cramped and humid down there, and the more people filed in, the more uncomfortable it got.
     Being in a tornado is a helpless feeling. All you can do is wait and pray. I worried about my wife and kids. I couldn’t shake the images from Joplin from my mind. What would we see when we emerged from the basement? What would I see at home?
     I got no reception on my cell phone so I walked into the underground garage next to the basement. It felt better in there. It was less humid and a breeze was blowing.
     I was able to text my wife. She and the kids were OK, but a funnel cloud had been spotted near Brentwood, a mile or two away from me. I opened my computer, dialed up Weather.com and didn’t like what I saw. Waves of red – meaning intense storms – surrounded us and were moving in.
     After 40 nerve-wracking minutes, and no tornadoes, we were let out of the basement. I headed home.
     As I pulled away from the court the tornado sirens sounded again. I called my wife and she said the funnel clouds had been spotted to the south – where I was heading. But she assured me that the funnels were heading east, and by the time I got there they would be past.
     It was eerie driving with the sirens going. The rain blew sideways and the gusty wind made it a constant battle to keep the car under control. But it was rush hour so we couldn’t go faster than 30 mph anyway.
     My normal 35-minute drive turned into an hour-long adventure, with my wife on the other end of the line as my lookout. I made it home as the rain stopped and the sun broke through the clouds.
     Spring in the Midwest.

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