What a Tornado, a Blizzard and an Earthquake have in common

In a classroom in NYC last year, several grad students from the East Coast were teasing a guy from California. He didn’t know what a “whiteout” was. They explained “blizzards,” and he stared at them like they were crazy. Hours later, the floor began to shake. The Easterners looked at each other. “What was that?” a New Yorker asked. From underneath the doorframe, the Californian looked smug. “THAT was an earthquake,” he said.

I am from neither New York nor California. I’m a Tex-pat—a Texan outside of Texas. (It’s a real thing.)

This week I watched the coverage of the tornado damage in Moore, Oklahoma, from way up in D.C. Last week, I watched in the wake of the tornado that struck North Texas. And as the stories of kids sheltering in bathrooms and tornado sirens wailing reached the District, people near me and far across the Twitter-sphere asked why the kids weren’t sent home. Isn’t a tornado day like a snow day?

No. It’s most definitely not.

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A blizzard hits New York in 1969. (See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In North Texas, where I’m from, the Bible Belt crashes head-on into Tornado Alley. We get hail, tropical storms, ice storms, snowstorms, tornados, terrible droughts and flashfloods. (Sometimes, we get more than one at the same time like, say, a drought and a flashflood.) My point: Nature is a fickle beast, and sometimes the weather feels like it changes at the drop of a coin.

When you live at the foot of Tornado Alley, you prepare for that weather just as that Californian had prepared for an earthquake. I did countless tornado drills growing up. Teachers heard you into windowless rooms or hallways. You huddle against walls, covering your head. During a tornado warning in high school, I crouched, surrounded by bassoons and euphoniums, in the instrument room of the band hall. Outside, the sky turned green.

What I learned this week is that not everyone does this. My friends from the northeast didn’t do tornado drills. Some don’t know what to do in a tornado. (For the record, if you’re outside, get to shelter immediately. If you can’t, lie down in a ditch and cover your head.)

It’s not surprising then that Easterners and Westerners demanded to know why kids were in school during a tornado. Afterall, if a crippling and deadly snowstorm is coming—DC is famous for getting hot and bothered about those—forecasters talk them up for days. Locals buy up bread and milk. Suburbanites put chains on their tires. The city hunkers down.

Tornadoes aren’t like that. Forecasters might know severe weather that could produce a tornado is coming, but severe weather is a regular part of life (see above for that list again). While winter storm watches can happen 12 to 36 hours in advance, in Moore, residents had 16 minutes from the time the sirens sounded to when the tornado touched ground. In North Texas last week, they had between 15 and 30 minutes. Nationally, according to NOAA, the average lead-time for a tornado alert is 13 minutes.

13 minutes. 13. That’s not like a snow day.

There are of course legitimate questions. Why, for instance, don’t more schools in Tornado Alley have safe rooms or better places to shelter students? (Remember that instrument room? Sheltering next to large metal euphoniums is not the best idea.) And some forecasters have said it may be possible to keep kids home during “moderate-to-high” risk days, though some students would be safer sheltering in a school.

It’s remarkable though, that in the midst of weather coverage, reporters like Brian Williams went out of their way to explain these aspects of life in Tornado Alley to audiences from the rest of the country. It’s remarkable in a good way, mostly because it means many don’t live with tornadoes. But also, it’s just one more way our lives are diverse.

Some have blizzards. Some have earthquakes. Some have tornadoes. (In recent years, North Texas has had all three.) As disasters, they’re part of our culture. And what matters, ultimately, is not which ones we were raised to deal with but how we react when they happen—to us or to our friends hundreds of miles away.

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