I’m a weather nerd. Not for any particular reason other than weather was responsible for the greatest terror I have ever known. I still remember the day a supercell unleashed a flurry of the worst tornadoes you can’t imagine unless you’ve been in one. Two 2 EF5s and 1 EF4 on the Enhanced Fujita scale of tornado intensity were the worst.
If you didn’t know, hurricanes, like Irma, spawn tornados, above and beyond the gale-force winds, storm surge (flooding), and torrential rain. If you wonder what that is like, this is a “small” taste.
I remember the morning of April the 3rd, 1974 as clearly as if it were yesterday. Dad was going off to work. He was wearing a brown suit that was hideous. It sat in our basement for decades and I always remembered that suit. He worked in downtown Louisville. It missed him.
We lived on 113 Hillcrest Avenue. If you ever happen to be there around Halloween, the residents spend more than they do on Christmas. There are still some of the 200-year-old trees on the north end of Hillcrest avenue. The south end wasn’t so lucky that day. Tabitha, next door had a mean German Shepard. He barked a lot. My sister Lesli was eight. My sister Cathy was two and my mom was six months pregnant with my sister Anne. I was staring out the window into our back yard to look at the mean dog. I had a pair of red Chuck Taylors on. They were my favorite shoes.
Tabitha, next door had a mean German Shepard. He barked a lot. My sister Lesli was eight. My sister Cathy was two and my mom was six months pregnant with my sister Anne. I was staring out the window into our back yard to look at the mean dog. I had a pair of red Chuck Taylors on. They were my favorite shoes.
There was something about the sky that day shortly before it came. Just down the street was the Louisville Water Company and they kept an emergency siren on the tower. I had never heard one before that day. The sound of them still terrifies me to this day.
The power was off but it wasn’t raining. I went down into the basement to get my little flashlight. I couldn’t find it. I never found it. It was like my favorite toy. I went back upstairs to see if dad put it somewhere.
That’s when I saw something I have never seen since. The sky turned an eerie shade of pale, iridescent green. Then the sirens went off, and suddenly my ears popped. It sounded like a train bearing down on you while you’re standing on the tracks. It was the EF-4 tornado.
Mom frantically told Lesli to grab Cathy and get to the basement. I turned to look at mom. She ran into my room to open the windows. “Thomas Clay get in the basement!” I got to the top of the steps when it hit. I stared down at Lesli holding Cathy as the curtains downstairs blew in between the stairwell. Mom jumped on top of me.
The first thing that goes in a house, when you are in an EF-4 tornado, is the glass — but just before it does, you feel the barometric pressure hammering your eardrums. Besides my pregnant mom laying on top of me, I felt that pressure in my ears.
The sound is not something you can fathom. I tried to recreate it with 3,250 watts of power, a $15,000 dollar set of Polk Audio speakers (that I got for $1,800) and the movie Twister. There were three 1,000 watt powered subwoofers, and just for good measure, I had two more Infinity 125 watt powered subs in the back. It sounded better than any movie theater I had ever been in, but it just does not do the real thing justice.
The twister lifted the corner of our house up, destroying our roof. The wind was deafening. It made the shutters slam against the house so loudly like two bats hitting at full force. It sounded like some goddess screaming in pain and then the debris started hitting the side of the house. It sounds like a million machine guns are going off all at the same time.
My dad took me on a drill one time in Fort Knox. He was a tank commander and we were going to go out and have some fun. My dad is also an asshole who thinks he’s really funny. So we are out on the firing range about to get into the tank and he says, “stand right here boy.” So I am standing there and he tells the tank to fire. The concussion from a 120 mm howitzer knocks you about 3 feet back if you aren’t expecting it and of course it’s worse than being at an AC/DC concert. He and his friends laughed and laughed. Fuckers.
Even that howitzer had nothing on the concussion the twister put out when the window blew out. A piece of glass hit mom right in the leg. It seemed like we were there for an hour. That’s what happens when time freezes in an instant of terror. In reality, it was less than a minute.
As soon as it passed, the sirens turned off. I have not to this day ever experienced the same absolute silence that comes after a tornado. It is so very peaceful.
We walked out to see what happened. The sun came out as bright as it could be. You feel like you do when you’ve had a soul crushing cry. The brick house at the end of the block was gone. There was just a basement full of bricks left. The 200-year-old trees were snapped like toothpicks. There was one car turned over onto a lawn. It smelled like freshly tilled soil. Mrs. Sheehan had to tell mom she was bleeding before she realized the gash. Everyone was there but the house on the end. 330 people died that day in Kentucky.
When you survive a tornado, you get really interested in the weather. I was in my late teens before I could bear thunderstorms and not relive that terrifying day. If you want to know the strength of a storm, you just look at the barometric pressure. Irma started at 1056 millibars which is an awesome enough storm. Two nights ago she was 918 millibars. She was 916 last night. A Coast Guard weather plane just dropped a probe in the eye of Irma. 914 millibars.
That is the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in the Atlantic ocean. This storm has the potential to wipe the Florida Keys off the map. She will then unleash her deadly wrath on anyone who stayed behind. I’m not a religious person but believe me when I tell you, those people are about to be in the worst storm to ever hit the Eastern seaboard. Tell whoever you know there that you love them.