Oklahoma Tornadoes and My Near-Miss With a Twister

I'm sure no one is ever fully prepared for the wrath that comes with a tornado, like the Oklahoma tornadoes that touched down yesterday, but when you live in the Southern Plains states where the weather phenomenon is common, at least you live with the possibility all the time.

Up here in New York, we get snowstorms that may delay or close schools, an occasional hurricane that knocks down some trees, and rainwater in the basement because everyone overdevelops around here ... but no tornadoes in the Northeast. Until you get one!

A real tornado touched down just a few miles from my home, about 20 miles north of New York City, in July 2006!


This was nothing near the scale of the 10 tornadoes that swept through Oklahoma yesterday, killing five people, injuring dozens, flattening homes, splitting trailers in two, and leaving thousands without power. The place is a mess, with damage estimates into the millions.

The Great Hawthorne, New York, Tornado of 2006 (which really wasn't that "great" at all, but when you have any tornado in the Northeast, even a baby one, it's HUGE) merely tiptoed across a rural highway toppling a section of trees and damaging the roof of a California Closets store before it collapsed. All the employees escaped in time, and the highway was closed for a few hours, and that was the sum of it.

But every time I drive down that parkway and see the bare spot left by all the uprooted trees four years ago, I think, You really never know. What if the twister had veered just four miles north? Could that have been my yard, my house? What if I had been there? The towns here don't teach tornado preparedness. I would've probably run into a closet and barricaded the door, or got in my car and attempted to outrun the thing, both exactly what you're not supposed to do when a tornado strikes.

Instead, emergency officials say you should seek the lowest floor of the house, preferably a basement or shelter away from windows, doors, and walls, hunker down, and pray. You never ever get into a car or a mobile home, which can be tossed and toppled by the wind tunnel, and you certainly don't attempt to outrun it.

I sincerely hope I don't need to need these instructions for future reference. Chances are very good that I won't. Tornadoes in the Northeast are very rare. Prior to the Hawthorne, um, wind, a small tornado touched down on the New York City borough of Staten Island on October 27, 2003, causing similarly small amounts of damage and uprooted trees.

What I really must do is stop singing the "Off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz ..." song in the car to my kids. Even though they laugh when I belt it out, all that does is make them beg me to rent the DVD. But I refuse to let them watch it until they're 12 (they demanded I give them an age, and I just threw that number out there randomly to shut them up).

I tell them it's too scary, that it'll give them nightmares, but now I'm thinking that it's really not them who will get scared.

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