Canoerebel -> RE: The Good The Bad & The Indifferent (2/5/2013 4:59:34 PM)
On several occasions, I have utilized the forums to help organize my thoughts for stories that I want to write. I've posted several thoughts about last week's tornado. I drew from these to write a story. This is still only a draft, but it's reasonably close to final. So I share it with those of you interested:
In the Heart of an EF-3 Tornado
Daniel M. Roper
When 51-year-old Anthony Raines died at 11:30 a.m. on January 30, 2013, his killer was racing through a tawny field of broom sedge, bearing down on a small frame building on a slight rise overlooking Ga. Highway 140.
Inside that building, 52-year-old Dan Roper, the publisher of Georgia Backroads, dropped to his knees, crawled under a stout wood table, and locked his right arm around the table's crossbeam. As utter chaos engulfed the place, he thought: “The building is coming apart. We may not make it through this.”
This is my account of the deadly tornado that hit Adairsville in late January. To invoke a trite but accurate saying, my two teenaged sons and I had a date with destiny that morning. Our home is in Armuchee, 17 miles west of Adairsville, but on occasion we enjoyed patronizing Owens Biscuits, owned by family friend Kregg Owens. (Kregg’s 26-year-old son, Josh, is no stranger to readers of the magazine. He accompanies the Roper men on Appalachian Trail backpacking trips that sometimes become the subject of articles for the magazine.) When the tornado hit the restaurant located just west of Interstate 75 at Exit 306, no members of the Owens family were present. It was just me, John (18) and Jackson (15), and two female employees who are mother and daughter.
Northwest Georgia was under a tornado watch that morning, but those of us in the restaurant were unaware that severe weather was imminent. Unknown to the five of us, a tornado warning had been issued for Adairsville. Residents of the three houses next door heard the warning and were already seeking refuge in a storm shelter built into the side of a hill. But those of us in the restaurant were relaxed and ignorant of the menace.
Like most southerners, I am accustomed to severe weather. I have experienced a half century of powerful thunderstorms. I have seen the sky turn a sickly green before spitting lightning bolts and hail. Two years ago, I trembled in my office as straight-line winds in excess of 80 miles an hour hit the building during an outbreak of violent storms that spawned an EF5 tornado in Tuscaloosa, an EF4 in Ringgold, and a variety of EF1 and EF2 tornadoes around Rome. And as a youngster growing up in Miami many years ago, I was on the outskirts of a number of hurricanes.
That’s how Mother Nature fooled me on that morning in January. The weather conditions were not alarming. The sky was routinely gray rather than bearing the black or greenish cast that I’ve come to associate with squall lines. Light rain was falling. The wind was gusty but not violent. A few flashes of lightning had resulted in distant thunder. There was no ominous stillness. I didn’t hear anything that sounded like a freight train. (Later, Jackson would say that’s exactly what it sounded like; that or standing beside a roller coaster as the cars roar by.)
As we wrapped up our late breakfast of cathead southern biscuits, we noticed that a mountain ridge several miles to the west was nearly grayed out by rain. I suggested that we finish up and exit to our pickup truck before the storm arrived. As we walked up to the counter to get drink refills and to say farewell to the two employees, the lights flickered off and on several times and the wind picked up. All five of us looked out the west-facing window and the south-facing door, which had been propped open due to the unseasonal warmth.
In a panic-stricken voice, the younger of the two Owens Biscuits employees abruptly yelled, “It’s a tornado! It’s a tornado!”
I was looking in the same direction she was. I was seeing the same weather conditions. I had no doubt whatsoever that she was mistaken, for the storm did not seem extraordinary. It looked like a squall line typical of a strong cold front, but nothing to be overly alarmed about. I was dead wrong.
When the young lady yelled her warning, all of us moved toward the open door and the west window to get a better look outside. The older of the two employees intended to shut the door. John was close by (he told me later that he had tried to shut the door when she couldn’t). Both of them were behind me as I approached the southwest corner of the dining room and looked out the window. Looking out the door, I saw the wind rapidly increasing in intensity, driving the rain horizontally.
It was at that moment that things began to happen quickly – much faster than it will take you to read this and much more jumbled and frenzied than orderly writing can convey.
As we looked out the door and into the storm, the wind strengthened dramatically to a velocity I had never before witnessed. The horizontally-blowing wall of rain had an ominous convexity to it, bowed outward as though we were looking at the workings of a stupendous vortex. Blowing objects and debris were carried by the vortex. The meaning was both obvious and stunning: this was a tornado…and it was already upon us.
Glass windows at both ends of the dining room simultaneously shattered. The lights went out. Solid objects, including the door, crashed inside the room. Stunned by glass breaking right beside my right cheek and somewhere to my rear, I dropped to my knees and scrambled under the table we had been peacefully dining at just two minutes before. I thought I saw one or both of the boys huddled against the nearby wall. I called frantically to them to join me. There was no reply. Desperately, I called again; still no response. As for the two employees, there was no sign of either.
It was at that moment, when the tornado began dismantling Owens Biscuits, that I thought, “The building is coming apart. We may not make it through this.”
Huddled helplessly under that table, there was nothing I could do. I was at the mercy of a storm that didn’t seem likely to grant mercy. But then there was a perceptible decrease in the chaotic conditions. A second later, it was apparent that the tornado, though still close, had passed. The entire event – from dropping to my knees to the realization that the tornado was moving away – took four or five seconds.
The dining room was in shambles. The door had been blown off its hinges and lay canted on the floor over debris. The floor was littered with broken glass, a wicked-looking shard from a broken mirror, decorative but potentially deadly items like three rusty saw blades with painted landscape scenes, insulation, pieces of wood and roofing. (I didn’t know until later that there were dozens of pieces of glass in my hair and pockets).
As I called again to the boys, I heard them yelling for me. They had taken refuge in the bathroom with the two employees, who were both hysterical. All four of them were safe and unharmed except for minor cuts and abrasions that didn’t even require band aids. The bathroom was remarkably undamaged, including pieces of porcelain pottery still in place on shelves. (The next day, we saw that the tornado had propelled a six-foot length of 2” x 6” lumber through the exterior wall on the east side of the bathroom, but an inner brick wall had stopped the lethal projectile.)
Stunned and shaken, we exited the building to a nightmarish scene. The older employee’s car had vanished from the lot. A large, eastern white pine beside which I had parked my truck lay flat on the ground. To our right, the three houses next door had been destroyed. To our left, a one-story brick commercial building had been flattened. Eighteen-wheelers were overturned on Highway 140 and in nearby parking lots. Cars were upside down in the highway and on the grass, shockingly crumpled, like stomped-on soft drink cans. To our rear, across the highway, the east one-third of the sprawling, modern Daiki factory was a tangled mass of twisted metal. Amidst that wreckage, a broken water main or hydrant shot forth a towering geyser of water.
John, Jackson and I gingerly worked our way across wreckage and downed power lines to check one of the destroyed houses. As we did, sirens wailed in the distance. (Just a minute after the tornado passed, emergency responders arrived on the scene – a remarkable instance of preparation and effectiveness.) We did not find anybody in the wreckage of the house. We soon encountered them in their storm shelter, where all of them were safe but dazed.
Next, we walked to the highway to check damaged cars for occupants. Already, the police and other emergency responders had arrived in numbers. There was also a young woman in casual clothes jogging down the highway, yelling to us and everybody she saw, “Is anybody hurt? I’m a nurse!”
Matters were out of our hands at this point. The professionals were taking charge. I asked the two Owens Biscuits employees if they needed anything. Then my boys and I cleared debris from the restaurant parking lot. I wanted to get to a working phone to call my wife, who I feared would be frantic. As we made our way to my pickup truck, dark clouds poured out heavy rain.
Later that day, someone asked me if I had been afraid during the tornado. I truthfully replied that I wasn’t, but only because the event did not last long enough for us to feel fear – nor had we received the kind of forewarning that might have given fear time to develop. Indeed, it wasn’t until late that night, while snug at home, that thoughts of what might have been prompted feelings of dismay.
While Owens Biscuits had been badly damaged, the structure was more or less intact – the only building left standing in the immediate path of the storm at that location. Constructed of simple, weather-beaten pine planking, the structure had started to come apart at the height of the storm. Had the tornado been stronger, or had it more time to do its work, Owens would have been destroyed as completely as its neighbors. Of this, I have no doubt.
The Weather Service assigned an EF3 rating to the Adairsville tornado. The characteristics of an EF3 are: “Severe damage. Entire stories of well-constructed houses destroyed; severe damage to large buildings such as shopping malls; trains overturned; trees debarked; heavy cars lifted off the ground and thrown; structures with weak foundations blown away some distance.”
With winds of 160 miles an hour, the storm was just five miles an hour below an EF4 rating. It was a close thing. How close? According to Texas Tech’s Wind Science and Engineering Center, a tornado with winds of 152 miles an hour will result in “most walls collapsed in bottom floor, except small interior rooms.” At 170 miles an hour: “All walls collapsed.”
One of the oddities of the tornado was that my 1999 Ford F-150 pickup truck, which was parked next to the large white pine that had been knocked flat, and just thirty feet from the employee's car that had blown away, was intact and nearly undamaged. It suffered a few cosmetic dents - one of which was coated in sap – that don’t justify repair, given the vehicle’s age. Several bags of trash and my favorite hiking stick were still in the bed, unmolested.
Surprised that the truck had survived and astonished at what we had just experienced, John, Jackson, and I climbed in, pulled out of the parking lot, and began the trip home. We were most relieved and grateful, but our thoughts also were with those who didn’t have the luxury of simply driving away; who had lost homes or businesses or vehicles; who had lost a loved one, like the family and friends of Anthony Raines.
And I vowed to listen the next time a frantic young lady yells, “It’s a tornado!”