The beginning of something

It’s been at least thirty years since I last experienced a tornado. The tell-tale greening of the sticky summer sky and the distant wail of warning sirens are familiar waypoints I look and listen for when crossing the landscape of memory. I can travel as far back as first grade, in the old brick building on Hiller road near the derelict grain silos at the top of the Willow road hill. I remember believing I would die, along with my classmates, in the otherwise off-limits depths of the school basement, in the terrifying presence of an ancient steam boiler in the dim light of Mrs. Bloom’s flashlight. 

By second grade I’d already learned that growing up in Michigan meant living with tornadoes. Before long I feared buildings without basements more than the tornadoes themselves. In 1996 I saw the film, Twister, a celebration of the rush and carnage of storm chasing. In the years that followed I told anyone who asked that I wanted to be a storm-chasing meteorologist. I know I’m nearing my destination, that the dot that represents my childhood home is near when my pulse quickens like it did when I’d eagerly scan the side-scrolling alerts on the bottom of the TV screen, searching for the familiar names of nearby counties, Oakland, Livingston, Washtenaw, Shiawassee.

A thunderstorm is a rare occurrence in Southeast Alaska. More common are the thunder of an avalanche or the roar of a winter gale. A single thunder clap becomes a chorus as the sonic boom echoes across the water and through mountain valleys in all directions.

Despite the destruction showcased on the news in the aftermath of summer storms, our home was never damaged. The three leaning cottonwoods out my bedroom window were never toppled. Only the frailest of limbs fell from the rough skinned willows along the mucky edge of the still pond out back. Remnant forests surrounding our suburban cul-de-sacs held their ground, bent but did not break.  

June through November is hurricane season in the North Atlantic basin. I worry about my parents the most in September and October. They left Michigan and moved to an island in the South Carolina low-country in 2009. In the time they’ve lived on the island, the lone evacuation route via a low bridge has been swamped by the storm surge four times. According to weather records dating back to 1851, approximately 25 tropical storms have hit Hilton Head Island. However, with the exception of the 1893 Sea Islands Hurricane there aren’t any records of direct hits. My parents have only evacuated twice. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew downed 120,000 trees on Hilton Head Island. Returning to the island a week after the storm they found two thirty foot Palmetto trees fell on their neighbor’s house. And yet, they haven’t evacuated again since. Once they even lied to me about leaving, maybe they were ashamed by their stubborn paralysis, maybe they were simply no longer afraid.  

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a hurricane is a tropical cyclone with maximum sustained winds of 74 mph (64 knots) or higher. In the western North Pacific, hurricanes are called typhoons; similar storms in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific Ocean are called cyclones. In Southeast Alaska, fall and winter storms ride in on North Pacific low pressure systems bringing darkness and weeks of rain. Occasionally a reversal of the North Pacific gyre will bring warm air from Hawaii and dump a Pineapple Express on Alaska in December. More common are Taku winds that originate in the Yukon and charge over the Juneau Icefield, hammering Juneau and Douglas with easterly gusts at 75 mph. The Sheep Mountain weather station regularly records winter winds in excess of 100 mph. Last September a friend shared a radar image picturing a massive green cyclone approaching the panhandle of  Southeast Alaska. Outside we gather or tie down anything that might blow away; flower pots, garbage cans, trampolines. We bring in firewood, dig out candles, prepare for a sleepless night and power outages. Anywhere else in the world, this storm would be given a name. In Southeast Alaska we called the system, Friday.  

In Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz a tornado carries a Kansas farm house, complete with a young girl inside and drops it in a fantasy land called Oz. The traumatic journey appears to leave the house and the girl unscathed, however the same can’t be said for the witch pinned underneath. In 1998, I sat in the basement of my parent’s Michigan house high on LSD and hiding from the humid weight of summer. In the protective shelter of air conditioning and privilege, the smell of damp mud rising with groundwater in the sump pump basin, my girlfriend and I had achieved slacker synchronization. While the storm soaked Oakland county and darkened mid-day to dusk, we were startled not by thunder but by the ringing bells and cuckoo clock of the intro to Pink Floyd’s Time as Dorothy emerged from her Kansas home, transplanted by a tornado to a strange land.