When I was nearly 17, in 1990, I saw one of the biggest, ugliest, strongest tornadoes recorded up to that point in American history: The Hesston Tornado (sometimes referred to as the “Monster on the Prairie”) injured 59 people, killed one more, and wiped out most of a town. By the time it passed Hillsboro, Kansas, where I lived, it had done most of its damage, but it was still so huge that it blotted out most of the southern sky. I stood in the center of my town’s Main Street and screamed an obscenity as I realized what I was looking at.
Still, that tornado did not scare me nearly as much as Hurricane Sandy does today.
Admittedly, I’ve spent most of my time in Philadelphia amused the local notion of “bad” weather. Drivers, it seems, don’t know how to react when just a little rain falls on the streets here. Entire springs go by without me hearing booming thunder even once. There have been a couple of big snows in recent years, admittedly, but I found the level of local panic bewildering. Compared to my decades of Kansas living—and, incidentally, that Wizard of Oz joke you want to make right now is so lame—the conditions here usually strike me no worse than “meh.”
But hurricanes terrify me. They’re the one exception to this region’s otherwise puny climate.
Here’s the thing about tornadoes: They’re here, and then they’re gone. Yes, they can do a tremendous amount of damage—just look at what one did to Joplin, Mo. last year. But they come and they go in a matter of minutes, and even if you happen to see one, that doesn’t mean it’s going to get you: It might slide on by while you watch. This is why you have TV shows and movies about tornado chasers.
Hurricanes, on the other hand, are like the movie Session 9, which builds up dread for most of two hours before finally unleashing its horror. We’ve spent most of a week watching this storm head our way, and honestly: The anticipation has me all wound up
What’s more: We’re not going to just watch Sandy roll by without any harm to ourselves: If you can see the hurricane, you’re in the middle of it, and it’s already too late to escape. All you can do is hunker down and hope to ride it out.
Last year’s encounter with Irene calmed my fears somewhat, but only a little. We live in Center City, and after a lot of hyperbole and buildup, we didn’t even see our power flicker. But the forecasters are telling us, no, this storm really is the big one, and Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter The Storm Path.
So we have our water and candles and dry goods stocked up, and we’re fortifying the apartment a little bit, but mostly we’re crossing our fingers and hoping that it’s just not that bad. And hopefully, in a week or so, people can look back at this post and point fingers and laugh at me for the panic. In the meantime, I’ll just have to nurse my beer slowly and contemplate messages like this one from my cousin.
“Joel,” she wrote, “it’s okay to move back to Kansas. We don’t have hurricanes here and I haven’t seen a tornado in years.”
Neither have I. I’d still rather take my chance with the tornado. But the choice has been made, and we’ll see if we can endure a Philadelphia hurricane. Good luck, everybody.