Around 11:00 a.m. this morning, my mother called me at the office and said, “You probably already know this, but there’s a tornado headed straight for you.”
Her words didn’t even have time to register with me before the sirens started going off.
“Oh,” I said almost nonchalantly. “There’s the sirens. Guess we’ll be heading down to the shelter soon.”
“Call me when it’s over, okay?”
We said our good-byes and hung up. Then I turned to my computer and IM’ed Patrick. Since he’s had problems in the past with passing out, we check in with each other throughout the day. If he doesn’t respond to my instant messages, I call him. I let him know that a tornado had been seen on the ground and he should get himself down to the basement. We said our good-byes, and, as always, our I-love-yous.
In Kansas City at this time of the year, the tornado sirens get tested on Wednesdays. Most people ignore them altogether. But between what’s happened in Joplin and our own spotty weather, I could hear people outside in the hallways asking, “Are they testing?”
And then, as if in answer to that, the college alarm system started going off: “CAN I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. CAN I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. SEVERE WEATHER HAS BEEN REPORTED. PLEASE MOVE TO THE SHELTER AREA.”
I didn’t hesitate, but grabbed my purse with my cell phone and an ancient Palm Pilot freshly downloaded with the Song of Ice and Fire series, and my flash drive with all my writing on it. I also made sure I had my migraine medications. As I look back on my choices now, I am reminded of that Sherlock Holmes story where Holmes, (that magnificent, sexist bastard), remarks that if a woman is faced with an emergency, she will grab that which is most precious to her—children, if she has them. Stuff, if she doesn’t.
So, with that stuff most precious to me, I went to join the crowd in the stairwell. As I did, I looked around for my brother and didn’t see him. My brother works part-time for MCC as a videographer. I saw his supervisor, Mark, behind me on the stairs and shouted up to him, “Where’s Matt?”
“I think he went on ahead!” came the reply.
There was nothing to do but go on and hope that Mark was right. It was with surprisingly little complication that we, (mostly staff, but a few students, and the children from the Plaza de Ninos daycare) arrived at the Education Center building. Spring semester is over; the summer semester has not yet begun, so there are very few students on campus at the moment. Today, we were glad for that—it meant fewer people in harm’s way.
Though, God knows, we would’ve had the room for them.
All Metropolitan Community College campuses have FEMA shelters that can house a considerable number of people. I assume they all have similar capacities, but I can tell you specifically that Penn Valley’s shelter can hold anywhere from 3,000-5,000 people. They are not just for students, staff and faculty either; they are meant for the community.
One of my co-workers was at a meeting at the Kansas City Public Library Downtown, where people took shelter in their underground vault (the building used to be a bank). Fortunately for the children, there’s a movie screen there so they could watch films. (We put the daycare kids in a classroom to watch Dora the Explorer.) The security force that patrols Downtown, which Patrick and I refer to as the Bumblebee Squad for their bright black and yellow vests, were dragging homeless people in off the streets. I heard that several businesses throughout the area threw open their doors to people caught in the storm. We should have been doing that. I hope in the future we will find ways to raise awareness of the resources we have available to those in need.
Back at the shelter, I found my brother almost at once, which was a relief. Once security got everyone inside, the place went into lockdown. The shelter is essentially one big bunker, with reinforced steel doors and no windows. There is almost no cell phone or Wi-Fi reception because of the thickness of the walls. Every television was tuned to the weather. People crowded around them to watch as the live Doppler showed ominously swirling formations hovering over the entire metropolitan area.
Then I saw footage of funnel clouds forming at 435 and State Line—just a few miles from my house.
I could stand there and hang on to every word the weathermen were saying and think about how helpless I was, or I could walk away. So I walked away.
All the while, the emergency alarm kept sounding, “CAN I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. CAN I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. SEVERE WEATHER HAS BEEN REPORTED. PLEASE MOVE TO THE SHELTER AREA.”
It was not quite 11:30. I tried to settle into a classroom with Matt and some of my co-workers and actually succeeded in striking up some conversation, though you had to shout to be heard over the alarm. People kept wandering by, waving their cell phones around like magicians trying to perform some arcane ritual, in search of signal. Invariably, all conversations were of tornado experiences. One of my co-workers (and one of my favorite people), Barb, recounted how when she was a teenager she saw a tornado touch down at a high school and blow the windows out, “like a bomb detonating.”
From where I was sitting, I had a clear view of the auditorium and the LCD screens suspended from the ceiling, which had the Doppler going at all times, and the news feeds at the bottom. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw, INDEPENDENCE, 12 MINUTES.
As I sat there, I kept thinking about Reading and Chickasha and Joplin.
Nancy, another woman I work with who has two young children, came in near tears. Her daughter goes to an elementary school in Lee’s Summit, newly renovated from an old horse barn. The renovation was touted for its green design—a design that, sadly, does not include a basement. I heard several people remark that their children’s schools do not include a basement or shelter, which is really surprising here in Tornado Alley. But, come to think of it, none of my elementary schools had basements. My Catholic school had a boiler room, but it was hardly big enough to accommodate the entire student body. Patrick said that none of his schools in Kansas had basements either.
No, when it came to tornado drills—you either crawled under your desk, or you went into a bathroom or hallway. You hunkered down. That was it. That was the drill. Duck and cover, in other words.
“CAN I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. CAN I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. SEVERE WEATHER HAS BEEN REPORTED. PLEASE MOVE TO THE SHELTER AREA.”
INDEPENDENCE, 7 MINUTES.
COUNTRY CLUB PLAZA, 13 MINUTES.
DOWNTOWN, 18 MINUTES.
LIBERTY, 27 MINUTES.
I think, my cousin lives in Independence. Her little girl goes to school there. Poor Nancy. I am starting to have an inkling how she feels—how my mother must feel. Both my brother and I are here. My step-father works just two blocks east of here. My mother’s entire family is sitting right here in the path of the oncoming storm. I think of my sister, down in Oklahoma, who’s probably frantic. And I can’t call them or text them to tell them that we’re here in the shelter, waiting it out. Bored, hungry, grumpy, but otherwise okay.
A tornado touched down this afternoon on 31st and Main, one block east of campus—equidistant between Penn Valley and KCPT, where our step-father works. Another one touched down at 435 and Front Street, a few blocks from our Business & Technology campus. Yet another tornado touched down in Claycomo, a small suburb that borders the town where I went to high school—the town where my parents still live.
But it was all just touch and go. We were spared any damage.
I take out my Palm Pilot and try to read, but I can’t read. I can’t sit. I’m trying to imagine what’s going on outside—I’m trying to listen, trying to hear something, but I can’t hear anything. I’ve always heard it said that a tornado sounds like a freight train coming down the tracks. But all I can hear is the roar of hundreds of people and that damn alarm. It’s noon now and I’m starving. There’s no vending machine here, nothing to eat—no emergency provisions were made for that. I want to pace. I want to prowl. The lizard brain has taken over—the lion brain. I’m on hospital time now. I feel the beginnings of a migraine starting on the left side of my head. I have the beginnings of my own perfect storm. I don’t want to take the pills though, not without food. Please God, don’t let me vomit here. Don’t let me get a migraine here. I don’t know if I can stand it.
“CAN I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. CAN I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE—“
I rummage in my purse and pull out my notepad and I write,
I’m going to count my blessings:
Thank you, God. I am as safe as it’s possible to be in this situation.
Thank you, God, for letting me have my brother here with me.
Thank you, God, for letting me be surrounded by respected colleagues and beloved friends.
A student in the corner sleeps propped against a stack of folded-up tables. I envy her.
“SEVERE WEATHER HAS BEEN REPORTED. PLEASE MOVE--”
Thank you, God, for giving me the opportunity to speak to my husband and mother.
Thank you, God, for this pen and paper, that I might calm my thoughts.
Thank you, God, and forgive me for my selfishness.
“--TO THE SHELTER AREA.”
And if You could do something about that fucking recording, that would be swell.
We emerged about 1:30 p.m., some two and a half hours later, to brief sunshine. I have my sunglasses on already, the migraine flaring in my skull.
“Look, the sidewalks are dry,” Barb points out as we walk together back up to our building. “How did that happen?”
“Out came the sun," I said, "And dried up all the rain."