As for the weather, I hate this time of year.
Not just for us in the Capital Region, but especially for the Midwest, a place where so many tornadoes are born. It was in the early 1950s when someone coined the phrase “Tornado Alley” to describe the areas most vulnerable to a tornado. For those of you curious, Tornado Alley includes Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Nebraska. This is not an official designation, so some people add and subtract states from the list.
Either way, these are the places that need to hold their breath whenever a storm system rumbles and a tornado watch or warning is issued.
I hate tornadoes because they literally fall from the sky and are random in what they destroy. Or to quote Helen Hunt’s character in the utterly entertaining and ridiculous 1996 movie “Twister,” they miss that home and that house and come next for your home. As silly as her assumption in the film is, she’s not wrong in thinking so. How many times have we watched a video of a neighborhood in the middle of the country after a tornado has passed and we can clearly see a house gone and another 50 meters away, barely touched?
Try to make sense of it, especially if someone is deceased.
I can’t imagine living in a place where this tornado alarm goes off in late spring or summer. How can you stay at work and get out of the storm when your kids, spouse, or elderly parents are miles away at a school, day camp, or senior center? How not to run towards them every time?
People who lived in Oklahoma or Nebraska told me that you get used to it, but I don’t think I ever could. Give me a hurricane or snowstorm any day; at least we can see those who are coming. At least you can get out of the way or prepare yourself somehow.
You may not have noticed, but last Tuesday was May 31, the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Great Mechanicville Tornado. We call it that, but the truth is that it also hit Stillwater and Schaghticoke on that terrible day. Dozens of people injured, tens of millions of damage to homes and businesses lost, but fortunately no one died. It was a miracle.
I remember that day like it was yesterday because in fifty-nine years on this planet I have never seen the sky look like this. The clouds were thick as mashed potatoes, taking on a green hue, and were uncomfortably low to the ground. It was almost something primal in you when you looked up at the sky and saw this. You couldn’t tell about the weather and know it wasn’t safe to be outside.
The sky looked devilish, if such a thing were possible.
I was living in North Greenbush at the time in a small cape style house that would have been blown away by a tornado like Dorothy’s house on the way to Oz. As the crow flies, the danger of the storm that terrible day was only about sixteen miles away, which was very close for me.
May 31, 1998 was also a Sunday, which meant I was off work, my shift as a TV reporter being Monday through Friday at the time. I was grateful to be away because it meant I could stay with my kids. A co-worker (whom I won’t name) told me that they sent him on the storm path that day because they were expecting heavy wind damage and it was the first time in his career that he was running away from a story.
He told me about it years later, explaining that he was on a road near a large empty field in Rensselaer County and could smell and taste what was coming, as he saw the same sky as me, only worse. He told his photographer to turn around and get to a safer place. I think he was smart.
I’ve never quite understood people who want to chase tornadoes. I guess it’s a bit like jumping out of a plane or rock climbing without safety ropes, you do it for the adrenaline rush. No thanks. If I want to get my blood and blood pressure up, I just have to open the national grid bill to see what the gas and electricity bill is for this month.
I was curious to know what was the deadliest tornado in the history of this country and the answer shocked me. On March 18, 1925, something called the Tri-State Tornado hit the Midwest. It was actually about a dozen confirmed tornadoes that touched down over several hours in multiple states that day. When the dust settled, 751 people were dead, more than 2,000 injured and a few billion dollars in damage left behind.
We have better warning systems now, but when the skies darken, you still don’t know. That’s why I hate tornadoes. Stay safe this summer. Please.
John Gray is a news anchor on WXXA-Fox TV 23 and ABC’S WTEN News Channel 10. His column is published every Sunday. Email him at [email protected]