Living in Ohio, I’ve lived through dozens.
A week or two ago, a friend put together a college reunion group on social media. We all dove in headfirst sharing memories, and it has been fun to talk about things we may not have thought about in years.
One post, in particular, got me thinking. Our university was located in the flatlands of Nowheresville, Ohio. Tornadoes were a frequent occurrence. Having lived here all my life, most of my tornado memories are stored back in the recesses of my mind, all but forgotten.
But the stories shared about the experiences of others during a handful of twisters, about the fear and terror they felt, about witnessing others doing ludicrous things- it all got me thinking.
My earliest tornado-related memories involve an old weather radio that would squawk and come alive if there was dangerous weather nearby. We didn’t all own one, so when someone’s radio went off, the phone tree lit up and the kids and pets got corralled into their basements.
I remember sitting with my back to the wall by the stairs, bored to tears. I honestly don’t remember how we ever knew it was safe to return to the upstairs.
Frequently, we wouldn’t know there was a warning at all, and we’d go about our lives until the next day when someone asked if we’d seen evidence of the twister.
“Nope, didn’t even know there was one.”
Once, I was taking a class at a local community college (I was a very nerdy kid,) all the way on the 4th floor (yes, the entire college was in one building, and 4 stories was monumentally tall.) Someone came running in, shouting “A tornado is coming, get to the shelter.” Us natives calmly gathered our things and trekked downstairs, asking each other if we even knew there was a basement. The newbies were adorable, begging for information that no one had and crowding around the payphones that lined the wall. I sat with a classmate and studied for an exam scheduled for the next day.
Honestly, I don’t remember what happened next, other than when I got home my mom told me we were on the local news.
“Why?” I asked. “Nothing happened.”
“But the tornado was nearby, and the news crews took video of your school as everyone poured out of the shelter.”
And people watched that? (Life in Boringtown, Ohio, I guess.)
Moving into college, I never noticed that the buildings were reinforced with cinderblock and the light fixtures were caged. It didn’t appear odd to me, although it did to others. I never realized how many rooms were windowless so that they could be used as shelters. I never paid attention, because I knew that wherever I was, there would be a map on the wall nearby telling me where the closest shelter was located. Apparently, these things were unsettling for some people.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t a fan of tornados. I didn’t like looking at pictures when the curious out-of-staters would look them up, and I didn’t like hearing about the destruction that they caused. I knew how dangerous they could be, and I was rightfully in awe.
But I also knew that you can’t control mother nature. It’s a lot easier to quench anxiety when you aren’t expecting to prevent disaster, but you have a plan to stay safe. It’s also a lot easier to calm yourself when you know the actual risk. (I can’t tell you how wonderful the advent of smartphones has been for keeping tornado-safe!)
On one occasion a tornado decided to traipse through the area in the middle of an important choral rehearsal. In order to understand the actual danger, I had a plan. Instead of finding shelter, I went and stood outside the back door and watched the storm approach. I’ve done it ever since I was little. Watch and watch until the last second, because as long as I can see it in the distance, I know it is far away.
When Campus Safety shooed me back into the building, I joined the others in one of the bathrooms to wait out the storm. (To be perfectly honest, I had forgotten about the memory until one of my classmates demonstrated awe and horror at my behavior. I found her reaction amusing.)
Even the worst tornado during college caused only minor damage. Some of the cars in the parking lot had been moved around, a little worse for bumping into each other, and a number of trees had kissed the ground. No one was hurt. Not worth remembering. Although the next town over had some stores that closed down for repairs after losing roofs and windows and things.
The only time I was ever terrified during a tornado was when I was alone with two babies in the house while my mental health was at its lowest state ever. The sirens went off, I turned on the news on our tiny little TV that was thicker than it was tall, and the news anchor said to seek shelter.
This was a new house. A ranch. We had no shelter. I had no idea what to do. I called the neighbor, a sweet lady with four kids of her own, who told me to take the babies into the bathroom. So I did.
Were you expecting some exciting tornado story?
The thing about twisters is that around here, they aren’t usually exciting. They just are. Like blizzards and droughts, they are just one of the ways mother nature keeps us on our toes.
But it does paint a picture of how anxiety works, the danger of avoidance, and the benefit of exposure. If you’ve never experienced tornado alarms, they can be scary if you don’t know what to do. If you run in fear and scream every time you hear one, your anxiety will grow. But if you recognize the adaptive purpose of the alarm, to allow you to get to safety, then the alarm itself will not be frightening.
If, after your first tornado alarm exposure, you decide that it was too dangerous, and move somewhere far away and decidedly NOT flat, you will continue to be afraid of tornados. If, however, you stay and experience tornado after tornado without serious injury, you learn to trust the alarm, and anxiety decreases.
That is why, having lived in Tornado Alley all my life, I know exactly what to do when the sirens go off and I only get a little nervous.
Although, I have to admit- Earthquakes terrify me.
#5 in the Life, Censored series.