Monday, May 19, 2014

Tornado Sirens

Growing up in Tornado country, the first Saturday of every month at 1pm meant one thing: the sirens were being tested. While I worked at the Portage District Library, I often started my shift at 1pm on Saturdays and there was a siren right above the employee entrance. The trick was to be inside before it went off. At my current job in a bookstore, people often complain about how loud and obnoxious the security alarm is when it is triggered. It has nothing on a tornado siren going off directly above you. Trust me.

When I was living in San Francisco, they also had a test day, though I think it was Tuesday, not Saturday, and it wasn't for tornadoes. I remember the first time I heard it. I was lying in bed with the window open to let in a cool breeze tinged with the fresh ocean air (I lived just south of the Sunset in Parkmerced). At first, I thought nothing of it since I was used to hearing sirens. Then slowly it dawned on me. San Francisco doesn't suffer from tornadoes, and earthquakes happen too suddenly for an early warning system. (If only that were possible!) So why was I hearing a siren? 

It occurred to me that this was an air raid siren, possibly put in place during World War II when everyone was terrified the enemy would bomb the city, which housed, among many other important things, an army post. I know people who were stationed at the Presidio in the 70s and 80s. Though it is now a national park, San Francisco remains a major US city. Up until that moment I had always - always - thought of these sirens as tornado sirens. It was very disturbing to me to realize that they had another purpose. 

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One of my earliest memories is of going to the basement with my father and brother during a tornado warning. My mother had yet to arrive home from work, and I was nervous that she would be hurt. Branches were breaking off trees and debris was flying everywhere in our neighborhood. She made it home safely, though, and joined us in the basement. Hiding in the basement from a tornado was always a bit of an adventure. There was danger, of course. A bad tornado had hit downtown Kalamazoo a couple of years before I was born, leveling buildings, and injuring many. People died. (That hasn't stopped my favorite brewpub Olde Peninsula from creating Tornado Pale Ale in commemoration. It was a part of history, after all.) But while my family and I huddled together in the basement waiting for the warning to expire, we brought out Pa's old shop radio to keep up on developments and played board games like Monopoly and Parcheesi. It was fun!

What was not so fun was being herded into the back room of an Ann Arbor thrift shop after I had just arrived and didn't have time to shop. I also really, really had to pee. Thankfully, the back room had a restroom. There was no basement, but the building was made of cinder blocks and there were very few windows, which I guess is supposed to keep you mostly safe during a tornado.

The store manager informed us that a tornado had touched down on the north side of Ann Arbor, hence the sirens. Tornadoes are extremely unpredictable, so rather than drive all the way home to Belleville, a good 20 to 30 minute drive down I-94, I opted to stick around and see how things developed, as did most of the other customers. The staff passed around cups of water and popsicles. At one point, everyone jumped because most of our phones went off at the same time. It was our cellular phone carriers informing us that a tornado had been spotted in our area and to take shelter.

Thanks, Verizon! This is a service that I did not know they provided, but am very grateful for. I don't have a smart phone nor cable or satellite television at home and don't generally listen to the radio, so unless there is an obvious storm raging outside, I don't think I would think to check on potential tornado warnings. It was not raining that day, and the sky was a dull gray, not the yellow or green that signifies impending tornado. Since I was in town, I heard the sirens loud and clear. Here at my apartment, I am not sure where the nearest one is as I have never heard them this far out.

I think I stayed in the backroom with everyone for nearly two hours. Another tornado had popped up in Ypsilanti, which lies between Ann Arbor and my home in Belleville, so I was not about to venture that way. All the tornadoes and spiraling clouds that spawn them were headed east, the direction I also wanted to be going, which meant Wayne County's tornado warning lasted longer than Washtenaw's. (I was texting with my friend Kimmy in California to get updates on the weather.) After our warning expired, everyone left the store and I headed to the library to drop off and pick up some books. I killed a little more time there to make sure the Wayne warning had expired well before I got home. I later learned that spiraling clouds had passed right over Belleville.

I don't remember the last time I took shelter for a tornado. It's not very fun to do in an apartment building with pets, especially cats who hate storms. So let's hope I don't have to worry about it again until I am in a home of my own!

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