Tornado warning: Taking shelter from the storm

MEREDITH, N.H. — “The hell? What is that? Where is that noise coming from? Find it!”

It sounded like an air-raid siren inside the car, a high-pitched squeal that made me think maybe my CB radio had turned itself on and squelched loud enough to make my sternum vibrate. Melani grabbed my phone and in the sudden, complete silence said, “Umn, it’s a tornado warning. We have to find shelter. Now.”

iphone tornado warning

I don’t remember when I set my weather app to warn me of tornadoes. It was probably one of the first things I did when I got my new phone. I am, you understand, terrified of tornadoes.

I was in elementary school in Toronto when it started. The school secretary came over the PA system to warn everyone that we were under a tornado watch. And then — this was an elementary school, you’ll remember — she used the PA system to explain to us all what a tornado was and why they were dangerous.

And then they sent us all home.

My sister worked in the school daycare, so I went to her. But she wasn’t as afraid, and I must have been acting brave, because she soon sent me home. It was only a block away, after all, and she couldn’t have her baby sister hanging out at her workplace.

I remember every step of that walk under windy, black skies with a belt of fear around my chest, the tap tap tap tap in my throat that was my heart trying to keep pace with my thoughts. Our house was almost right on the beach and I can hear the waves still — the waves that were always my friend except this one afternoon when everything was dark and dangerous and my enemy.

It was only one block and I yearned for our basement, which had narrow creaky stairs and was crowded with boxes from frequent moves and where the neighbour kid had shown me what happens when you flick a lighter and depress a hair-spray nozzle.

I wrenched the doorknob toward me and … nothing happened. The door was locked. My mother wasn’t home. My mother was always home. I didn’t have a key — my mother was always home.

Although I remember each step of that walk home, each breath I took on that short block, I don’t at all remember the next few minutes. I can’t tell you whether it was five minutes or half an hour. I know I sat on the stoop and was filled with terror till she returned. I don’t remember where she’d been. It doesn’t matter. She was soothing and motherly and probably apologetic, though she needn’t have been.

I learned later that my father, at work at 1 Yonge St., saw a water spout over Lake Ontario. Knowing that made me feel a little better, like I hadn’t been just afraid of clouds and wind.

Taking cover during tornado warning. Scared shitless and loving it.

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In the years since, I have studied twisters and know just what to do if I’m trapped on a deserted highway (get in the deepest ditch I can find, far away from the car, with my kids under me) or in a hotel (hunker down, keep the radio on, stay the hell away from the windows). I’ve watched a thousand YouTube videos. For many years I read a storm-chaser’s blog every spring. My fear makes me obsessed.

When the little siren wailed inside my car, I was remarkably calm. My hands were shaking and my heart was somewhere between my ears, but I stayed pretty cool. We swung into the parking lot of a mountaintop McDonald’s and used the car’s radio and the CB to find National Weather Service alerts.

We sat by the windows in the McDonald’s, though. We couldn’t help ourselves. Trevor and I stood in the parking lot with the GoPro and watched the clouds for a while. It was the first time I had seen such clear, powerful rotation. There was absolutely something trying to form in that giant cloud. Blue skies be damned, that weather system was angry and desperate for an outlet. It spat small bits of hail at us before dissipating.

It was terrifying, and spectacular in every way.


Blue skies and rain in pursuit of my zen


The text, sent from the office near the end of my shift, was shorthand for “Let’s run away for a few hours. This reality sucks donkey balls.” Or something along those lines. She understood.

The point was to find a little zen on the highway, get a little peace on the open road. When I nearly succumbed to road rage just a few minutes into the drive — resulting in photos taken of licence plates and an in-car call to the highway police just as a torrential rain started to fall — I was about ready to turn around.

cars trafficMelani, my compass, kept me calm and we kept going. And sure enough, things started to turn around as soon as we hit the border. Our border guard was sharing his little booth with another red-headed guard who looked exactly like him. They were mid-conversation — “…so he was just living in this van…” — and didn’t really have time for us. “Where are you going?” he asked, scanning our passports. “Plattsburgh.” “Okay. Have a good day.” Just like that.

The baby had stopped chattering and had fallen asleep. It was one of those times when you had to put on both your wipers and your shades, what with the sun arriving of the (literal) blue through the clouds to the west. We got on twisty Hwy. 9 and wended our way through Chazy, taking imaginary pictures of the fallen-down or boarded-up buildings that line that part of the road.

The roads were a little slippy, but we were alone on them. The spectacular fall leaves were washed out under overcast skies, punctuated with blasts of orange and red on the mountains on the horizon.

I was almost there. I’d almost found my zen.

And then, off to the left and dropping without fear into Chazy Lake, was the most perfect rainbow. Ah. There it is.

This rainbow dropped behind the cornfields right into Chazy Lake.
This rainbow dropped behind the cornfields right into Chazy Lake.

A man with convictions in Florida

NEW ORLEANS, La. – I was walking along the dark streets around our hotel, alone, when I stepped on something that couldn’t have been bigger than a frog but made a sound like a hurt squirrel and then skittered away. Skittered! Like that creature in The Grudge. What does that? Omigod.

Creepy end to a creepy day where we drove in and out of the most intense thunderstorms I’ve experienced. The worst hit us before we were out of Florida and we had to take shelter in a McDonald’s (again). Rain or not, I was headed back outside for a calming smoke – my legs had been shaking for 10 minutes, and that makes it really hard to maintain a safe speed in high winds.

There was a guy out there in a blue scrub-type shirt with something stamped on the left-hand pocket. His grey hair was shaved nearly completely and his eyes were watery blue. His arms were covered in monochrome tattoos, from wrist to shoulder; not one pattern but dozens of separate pieces. There was a large, unevenly ornate cross on the inside of his upper arm.

He bummed a smoke and said, nodding toward the truck, “Are you all really from Quebec? What’re you doing here in sunny Florida?”

I told him we’re on our way to Texas and he shook his head like we’re crazy (I’m beginning to believe he’s on to something there). “I’ve been to Canada,” he told me. “Not Quebec, but lots of other places. Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C., the Yukon.”

“The Yukon? That’s intense.”

He shrugged. “My dad worked there for a year, I was young. I went up later when my cousin moved to Alberta cuz he needed someone to drive the truck. Stayed a while, came home to Texas and Louisiana.”

“We’re spending two days in Louisiana – I can’t wait.”

“You gotta get you a piece of boudin,” he said, meaning a kind of Creole sausage. “Anyone who goes to Louisiana gotta get them some boudin.”

“And gumbo. The real stuff, not like we make at home.”

He licked his lips. “I’m gonna make me a pot of gumbo soon as I get home. I just got … I haven’t been home in a while. Waiting for someone to pick me up. A friend was supposed to take me home, but he just brought me far as his place and I had to call another friend to come pick me up here.”

“Nice friend,” I said.

“Yeah. He was on his way to drinkin’. I just hope the next one shows up soon.” We were nearly finished our cigarettes and he could see I was moving toward the door. The sky was clearing, miraculously. “You have a good rest of your trip, y’hear? Lots to see.”

“Sometimes I think life’s too short to see all the things.”

He laughed. “I dunno ‘bout you, but my life’s feeling shorter every day.”

Just me and Hurricane Earl

Hurricane Earl is days away from the east coast.

SULLIVAN’S ISLAND, S.C. – I touched a hurricane today.

Hurricane Earl’s deadly riptides have already claimed a surfer somewhere along the East Coast, according to an overheard conversation back in Ocean City.

A couple of fishermen were the only other souls at a beach in Sullivan’s Island today and while Melani and Trevor mined the bare beach for shells, I walked along the water’s edge and let the hurricane-tossed waves wash over my feet. The water was so warm and inviting, every splash a siren’s call.

It was delicious.

Falling stars, police and dead people

Melani has been pestering me all week to take her to see the Perseid meteor shower. This requires getting away from the city lights, and I’ve been too tired and stressed out after work for the drive.

Last night, I finally gave in because, gorrammit, I wasn’t going to be responsible for her missing the shooting stars. With Kendra in tow, we crossed the falling-apart Mercier Bridge en route to our regular viewing spot.

It’s not far from an old farmhouse my parents used to own in Howick. There is a wicked S-curve on Scotch Concession with an old tractor trail off one of the sharp bends. When Melani’s little sister was in elementary school, we’d pull in there, cut the lights and wait for our eyes to adjust. Within moments the air was so full of fireflies you could almost read a book by their light. Thousands of them blinking away as we sat there breathless for minutes, for an hour. I don’t know whether chatter bothers fireflies, but we’d speak softly and laugh quietly. Sparkles of heaven a hands-breadth away.

But the tractor trail is overgrown now. There is no shoulder on the narrow barely-two-lane road and tall, dark trees obscure most of the sky. Driving along that road, it’s tradition for someone to say spookily: “I seen this movie!”

If you ask a farmer, he’ll gladly let you park on his land and look at the sky from his fields. But if you don’t ask, if you just show up in the middle of the night, he’s going to get cranky. My goal for the evening became “don’t anger the farmer.”

So we looped around back to St. Martine, a beautiful town along the river. I’d like to retire here, in a house with a wraparound deck protected by mosquito netting and a dock I can lie on to watch the stars and think heavy thoughts. Or no thoughts at all – really, that’s more like me.

“Ooooh, there’s a cemetery,” Melani said, pointing. “Can you pull in?”

I could, indeed, pull onto the gravel road and park near the gate to the graveyard. A sign noted it is closed after sundown and the gates were locked. We followed the fence to where it met a cornfield. The gates had been locked, but the fence just ended, so of course Kendra walked around it.

“The cops’ll be along to check on the car,” I told her and she reluctantly came back to us.

We lay in the dewy grass directly beneath the Milky Way and saw a few weak shooting stars (it’s very near the end of the showers) and talked about boys and stars and other very important things. When I heard the crunch of gravel behind us, I said, “Well, there’s the cops.”

Kendra panicked a little, but as I got up, I said, “They’re not going to shoot us. Just walk up to them very slowly.”

There was no choice but to go slowly. They had their roof lights on full blast; it was brighter than a noon-time sun. I walked close to the gravel road and stopped, waiting for them to come to me.

“I can ask what you’re doing here?” the Sûreté du Québec officer asked me.

“We came to see the meteor shower,” I said with a smile.

“You’ll have to tell me what this is, a mett-E-or shower.”

Melani’s French is better than mine. “Les étoiles fillant,” she told him.

“Oh, that’s tonight?”

“It’s all week.”

He looked back at me. “And it’s your car?”


“You’re from where?”


“Oh, so you should speak French.”

“I grew up in Toronto,” I said. It’s no excuse, but when people hear it, they cut me some slack.

“Okay,” he said. “Enjoy the show.”

I’d been ready to drive away. “You mean we can stay?”

He laughed at me. “Sure. Have fun.”

Well, that went well. The cops went off to find real criminals and we wandered back to our corner by the cornfield. Melani and Kendra decided that since the cops had already been there, it was safe to go into the graveyard. They didn’t go too close to the headstones – it was midnight, after all – but Melani flopped down on the other side of the fence.

“You’re going to lie down here?” Kendra asked, following suit.

“You might as well,” I said from my safe place on the other side of the fence. “Everyone else in there is lying down.”

I’ve never seen two people move so fast in my entire life.

Nothing to fear but the weather itself

Stunning cloud formations in Saskatchewan.
Stunning cloud formations in Saskatchewan.

My fear of tornadoes goes back to Grade 6.

It was the mid-’80s and we were living in The Beaches in Toronto. Our house was quite close to the water, on a street with the most wonderful name: Kippendavie Avenue. My school was less than a block away.

During class one spring afternoon, the secretary (could have been the principal, might have been the vice-principal, but someone in authority in any case) came on the loudspeaker to tell us there was a tornado warning for the area. She then went on – since she had the damn mike anyway – to explain to us exactly what a tornado was and the sort of damage it could do.

She then told us to go home.

I can still remember that horrible, shaking, cold-sweat fear. It was less than a block, sure, but there were tornadoes out there! I could die!

My sister worked in the school daycare, so I ran to her. She let me stay for a while, but she was working and wasn’t the type to get all panicked about, well, about anything. Cool Sue. She gave me a hug, but she sent me home, too. It was less than a block and our mom was always home. She was just always there; we could count on that.

Oh, stop getting ahead of me, you know where this is going. Of course she wasn’t home.

I don’t know how long I spent in the basement. I’m pretty sure I aged 10 years. My dad saw a water spout over Lake Ontario that day from his Toronto Star office and said he thought it was neat. I have been terrified – terrified – of tornadoes ever since.

And that is why I am fascinated with John Monteverdi’s Storm Chasing blog. I’ve been following his chase trips for years now. I guess the key to managing my fear is to try to understand the storm, and Monteverdi’s pretty damn good helping me do that. This year’s chase started May 16 and runs to June 1.

And if you’re so inclined, you can read my Montreal Gazette article, The Bluffer’s Guide: Everything You Need to Know for a Dinner Conversation About Storm Chasing.