TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY

Editorials

May 23, 2013

Weather can turn deadly in an instant

CORBIN — Tuesday’s storm that swept through the region reminded me just how deadly the weather can turn.

When the wall cloud made itself visible from Kentucky Avenue in Corbin, I knew watching from the sidewalk that it was going to be a doozy.

And then came the wind.

Sheets of rain soaked everything in sight.

The alley behind the newspaper was a river washing into the street.

A brief clatter of hail swept through as well.

And then the power went out.

Of course, the storm ended, and thankfully the majority of the damage was limited to trees and branches.

But I’ve always had a fascination for “heavy duty” weather.

About six months before I was born, Hurricane Agnes quietly moved from the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic, briefly ramped up to a Category 1 hurricane, then just as quietly dumped a foot and a half of rain on a region already soaked from several inches of rain the week before.

One part of that region was northeastern Pennsylvania — where a great deal of my family is from and still lives today.

The Susquehanna River spilled over its banks, flooding the region. My aunt, uncle and cousins were forced from their home, as were two great-aunts, and my grandparents.

It was the first named storm to have the name permanently retired, and I grew up hearing stories about that hurricane and subsequent flooding.

So I figure my fascination with weather started there.

I remember when I was about 5 or 6, we lived in a house with a large, sweeping yard. Behind the property, at least back then, there was a large corn field. Anytime any kind of wind blew, there was little to stop it, so it would hit the back of the house like gangbusters.

Across the street from the house was a large, wooded property. During a particularly bad thunderstorm, the winds howled around the house. I remember vividly watching through the picture window in the living room the large oaks, pines and maples bending dangerously in what was likely 60-plus mile an hour winds.

Of course, that memory didn’t compare with watching an F-1 tornado touch down in our neighborhood, rise up, and touch down again near the mall. I think I was 11 or 12 when that one happened. The damage from that storm was relatively small, especially in comparison to what we’ve seen in Oklahoma this week.

But I remember the look on my mother’s face. I remember looking out the kitchen window and seeing nothing but horizontal gray lines, mixed with an occasional tree branch or leaf.

Once that storm ended, the neighborhood was left with snapped trees, several holes in people’s rooftops, and vehicle damage. Stories in the local paper told of five-pound bricks flying through the air like tissue paper.

The biggest image I have is the billboard across from the mall — its steel frame was twisted around at an impossible angle.

The next big storm I remember being in was a tornado in the Texas panhandle. During the move to Albuquerque, N.M., we were hit with horizontal rain and high winds. At one point, the wind got so bad it lifted the driver’s side of the truck up and slammed it back down, nearly causing me to crash.

I didn’t learn until two days later that tornadoes had struck, and one had traversed Interstate 40 — right in the area I was driving.

But the ultimate experience with severe weather came for me in April 2011.

The National Weather Service had been warning people from Georgia into the northeast about a severe weather outbreak. All through the day, I stayed vigilant in watching the radar on the computer, as I somehow managed to have electricity the longest.

But then it came.

I had property scattered throughout east Tennessee — a car being repaired in Bristol, a shop in Bluff City, my home in Morristown and a camper in Chuckey.

In Bristol, a severe storm with a possible F-1 tornado hit the southern side of town. From bumper to bumper on that car being worked on, the hail left dozens of permanent dents.

A truck at the shop in Bluff City was also peppered with hail, and there were puddles of standing water inside the building.

At the house, the hail was so intense, it beat the grit off the shingles and destroyed the roof entirely.

All vehicles there sustained hail damage — some of the hail were three inches or more in diameter.

But the campground in Chuckey was subjected to the worst the storm system had to offer, at least, the worst for me.

Around 7 or 8 p.m. that night, a tornado dropped and bulldozed its way through the front part of the campground. It was an F-1 or F-2, closer to an F-2. The owners and other campers huddled inside a storage closet in the campground’s pavilion, and when that storm was over, everyone returned to their homes and campers.

The power was gone, and phone lines were down. Several trees were flattened and had been stripped of their bark.

I had electricity at home, and we were continuing to monitor the radar situation. My parents were in Bristol, I had a sister living in Johnson City, Tenn., and another married sister living with my niece in Knoxville, Tenn. — and that sister was pregnant.

The only tornado to touch down in the city limits of Knoxville hit my sister’s neighborhood. I was on the phone with her trying to keep her calm when the softball-sized hail started beating her home, and she was terrified in the basement, alone, with just my niece.

I could hear the severity of the storm in the background, and at one point an explosion of glass came through the receiver.

She and my niece were uninjured, but tens of thousands of dollars in damage to both her home and car definitely let her know what went through.

But the worst was yet to come.

Just before 10 that same night, a storm cell exploded on the screen just east of Newport, Tenn. — and looked as though it was making a beeline for the campground.

We tried calling, but the phones and electricity were down.

From what we were told by the owners later, everyone had returned to their campers. Most of those folks there had bunked down for the night, as radar prior to the electric being out showed nothing going on.

And then it happened.

About a mile west of the campground, an F-4 tornado touched down, obliterating trees in someone’s yard, as it moved east, a single-wide trailer was flipped on its top. The occupants were not home at the time. Across the street from that house, a couple heard the racket and was trying to get to the basement when the tornado burst through their brick home. They, too, were not injured.

The violent twister shredded a path through the forest, taking nearly every tree and throwing it helter-skelter.

And then it invaded the campground. Trees were uprooted. Campers were belted with trees. One camper was destroyed when a huge tree crashed through the roof. A man staying in a little tag-along camper was injured pretty badly, after the tornado picked his camper up, banged it against a few trees, and slammed it back to the ground. From what I’ve heard, he’s had to have a few back surgeries to heal the injury.

I went out to the campground with another camper — because I still was unaware of what went down.

As you turned onto the road toward the campground, the scene was surreal.

Trees down everywhere. Power lines down. Twisted paths of roadway to trundle through. Emergency crews everywhere. A few houses east of the campground were wiped from their foundations. Barns were flattened.

Five people near the campground were killed that night.

There is nothing that stops Mother Nature from wreaking havoc when she sees fit. We can be thankful we have access to various medias to keep ourselves aware of what’s happening in the skies overhead.

And we can also try to fathom the absolute finality of what happened this week to those poor souls in Oklahoma. While the devastation I dealt with was a shock to me, I still had my vehicles, my home, and my camper.

And even though I have personal experience in this department, I still cannot get my mind around the hand these Oklahomans were dealt.

We’ve all seen the pictures. Many properties are nothing more than a foundation and driveway in the middle of the mud — even the grass appears to be gone.

Miles and miles of piles and piles of people’s lives and memories — gone — most never to be replaced.

Take a moment today and try to slip on a pair of those folks’ shoes. It may make your own perceived problems seem rather trivial.

Reporter John Ross can be reached at jross@thetimestribune.com.

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