By Robert Connolly
The wind here typically comes roaring out of the northwest; from the vast, flat plains of the Dakotas. These winds originate far north of the US–Canadian border over the frigid landmass that comprises the northernmost aspect of our continent. Topology allows these winds to gain atmospheric momentum as they race unabated by land formations that could pose an impediment, serve as a deflecting buffer. Winds directly from the west have traversed the lofty heights of the Colorado Rockies and possess a mischief of their own. It is when the winds come from the south, when they carry all the moisture they have absorbed from the Gulf of Mexico and collide with the searing heat of the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma and the tabletop flatness of Kansas that they harbinge bad things to come. It is easy for anyone living in this immediate area to tell that bad things are indeed are the way.
The National Weather Service is usually correct in its short-term predictions for this part of the country. The mid-south and central plains present rather straightforward conditions, and Doppler radar and sophisticated computer modeling can detect storm cells with uncanny accuracy. Actually, the tornado siren has just begun sounding here. There was no doubt it would. Since earlier this afternoon it has just been a matter of when.
At this time of year the weather can change rapidly, and one of the more ominous indicators of a rough time to come is when the winds abruptly change their direction of origin. This is a sure sign; this violent instability usually precedes a curtain of storms producing high winds, hail, heavy rain, thunder and lightning that will send the hair on your head standing. But the surest sign that it is time to close the windows and doors and seek the safety of a storm shelter or an internal room without windows is when it suddenly just gets still. It takes a moment for the mind to register the sudden absence of sound. The winds create such a steady thrum in the trees and through the crops that it becomes almost unnoticed … at least unnoticed until it suddenly just stops. Stillness is bad; the unnatural quiet is eerie. This is when ears start to pop. Barometric pressure fluctuates wildly and the stillness will not be long lasting. It is the proverbial “calm before the storm.”
At some point the power will be interrupted; actually, the lights just flickered several times, but for the time being electricity is still available. The high voltage cables that bring electricity to each and every dot on the map across the Midwest are able to take only so much punishment. They are strung with a specific amount of laxity to allow them to survive a certain wind speed. But, as with everything in this region, nothing can be counted on for sure when it comes to foul weather and its effects.
The initial downpour commences and an inch of rain can fall in a matter of minutes. The temperature drops dramatically as the front rolls overhead pushing one turbulent air mass in front, and tugging another along behind it. The TV meteorologists’ colorful weather maps illustrate the atmospheric dance with a variety of symbols. On the ground, outside, the symbols are less colorful and definitely harbor an ill intent that no map can accurately depict. The initial squall is always fierce, as the wind-whipped rains come in a dark curtain, a torrent that strikes with such force it sounds as if ball bearing are pelting the windows. It comes and it comes; gale-force gusts that appear alive. Thunder rattles the foundation of buildings and shakes windows to the point of shattering. The electrical component of the squall has a mind of its own. The lightning strikes and cracks with the brilliance of a thousand flashbulbs simultaneously flaring, its illuminative power as dizzying as the strobe effect of a dozen disco balls. Ears ring and pop as the external pressure of the storm becomes discordant, rising and falling in the time-elapse of seconds, or so it seems.
Then, just as quickly it subsides, the squall ends and is carried further northeast. In its wake come cooler winds, winds that will ignite the very same sequence of events again and again because they come as a legion. They conjure no greater thrill or fear than other displays of nature’s wrath. They are just an isolated cog in an interconnected meteorological system. Just as theory has it, that the fluttering of the wings of a single butterfly in Africa impacts the formation of a tropical cyclone in the Caribbean, chaos is the order of the day. Complexity reigns supreme.
The tornado sirens are sounding yet again.