Saturday, June 4, 2011

6-1-11 Driving in Tornadoes

Last Wednesday afternoon (6-1-11), a little after 4 pm, a series of tornadoes struck Springfield, MA. A funnel cloud first touched down in W. Springfield with enough intensity to pick up an 18 wheeler (tandem trailer truck) and fling it on its side. It completely destroyed several houses and killed two people in West Springfield before crossing the Connecticut River where it churned up the water into a giant, terrifying froth. It crossed Interstate 91 and went on a path of utter destruction across Springfield for a mile or two. It missed the low, one story building housing my agency by a few yards. The building looks incongruous now as most of the homes and buildings in the immediate area were destroyed or sustained major damage. And all the trees are gone. Springfield, for all its wants as one of the poorest and most violent cities in the country, had beautiful trees: huge red oaks, copper beech and towering white pine trees. In its recklessness the tornado, in a few minutes leveled hundreds of acres of trees. It twisted them out of the ground so that they shattered into piece or it merely toppled them on to cars and houses, into the streets and backyards, across several large neighborhoods.

This is a fairly typical street in the neighborhoods across Springfield just outside actual hub of the city's center....

and this is a somewhat larger than average oak you'd see growing in Springfield, but also typical.

I'd had no warning a tornado was crossing the city until clients called me in panic. I found an open area and sat in my car watching the clouds and the wind and listening to descriptions of the storm on my cell phone and then started driving in what appeared to be the safest direction. Hail 3/4 of an inch in diameter was beating on my car roof and windshield. Lightening was striking everywhere with simultaneous thunder ripping the air. The wind felt like it does in the mountains at times. I had gone a mile heading west and a little south when it suddenly became pitch black. There were a few other cars on the road and I wondered what their drivers were thinking, or planning. I looked out the windshield at the sky directly above me and became more frightened each second. I tried not to panic. I thought of places close by where I could shelter and called a client who had a basement. His house was a mile away. As I drove I watched as a funnel cloud formed to my left and touched down. It got much darker and the ground began to shake. The tornado was going east. I stayed on course watching it. I could see the debris circling around in the funnel but was not close enough to feel the horror that people in its path must have been feeling. I got to my client's house and ran to the door just as the sun came out and the rain stopped.

The tornado kept moving in an easterly direction causing immeasurable damage in towns and cities east of Springfield, damage that's impossible to process or come to terms with because it is so far beyond normal experience. Like the horror of war, you can only look in horror; the destruction is beyond belief.

The plight of the trees in these storms, the loss of tens of thousands of trees (300 million trees in Hurricane Katrina), is not what most people think of. In Springfield and other cities decimated by tornadoes in 2011 the billions of dollars in loss of homes, schools, commercial buildings, roadways, vehicles, the loss of businesses, and the loss of human lives takes precedence, surely...

Shattered trees and other debris stacked in a parking lot of
a shattered Springfield College dormitory off Rifle Street in
Springfield. The pile would become a mountain in a few days

......but on Friday (6-3-11) as I drove around the city, through a seemingly hopeless tangle of tree limbs, smashed cars, downed power lines, shattered homes, and impassable streets I couldn't help but cry for all the beautiful trees that were in the process of being cut up by the legions of tree removal workers that have come from all over the country. The sounds of all the chain saws and heavy equipment was deafening and when it is quiet again the trees will be gone. I'll miss them. I think everyone will.


Tornadoes of The Mind: (written at 8 pm on 6-9-11) It's a week after the storm. This afternoon between 4:30 and 6:30 pm, a massive, fast moving front, a copy cat of last Wednesday's storm, tore through the city and toppled more trees. Tornado warnings were broadcast this morning. To have two major storms come through a week apart is against the odds but today people in Springfield had their eyes on the sky. Everyone was jittery. It did not become a tornado, but was so similar to last week's storm it was still traumatizing. I was at a client's home when it hit and the family was in panic. One of the children cried, "I don't want to die" as the fury of the storm lashed the roof and walls of his home.

We've all learned that weather can be lethal. In the mountains it's an elementary fact that weather at its extreme can kill people not suitably prepared. It comes with high predictability. The oaks in Springfield, as old as they are, have experienced a lot of weather. Some of them have been around 300-400 years ( or more) and most were around for the 1938 hurricane and the hurricanes of 1954 and 1958. Hurricanes aren't exactly tornadoes but have a huge impact on people as well as trees. In these events animals seem to have a genetic precedent, as in earthquakes and tsunamis, they seem to know in advance when a potentially destructive, or lethal force storm is approaching. Some humans may have that ability, in fact a lot of us might have that prescience and not realize it, but the culture as a whole does not. Red oaks have adaptations that allow them to warn other red oaks about insect predation and that help them survive wild fires. Our adaptions are somewhat different. There's an example in last week's tornado where a mother used her body to cover her young daughter during the storm and was killed. The daughter survived.

Trees in their foliage are not designed well for wind loading. They must "know" there are tradeoffs. In the eastern US (particularly in the northeast) hurricane season begins at about the same time that the foliage of deciduous trees appears; the period when they are most vulnerable. Loss of some trees is preferable to the loss of most trees, but trees rebound quickly, even after Katrina. Trees may benefit from these calamities.

In Springfield the higher ground sustained the most damage. Trees on elevated areas were the most susceptible. The oaks had a higher mortality rate (informal survey) than the beech which may have something to do with root systems or just a fickle outcome. Tornadoes are extremely fickle; in fact they're bizarre. Driving through Springfield I have seen the most outlandish anomalies as seeing items, like an automobile, completely destroyed sitting next to untouched items: one huge tree left standing while the one beside it wrenched from the ground and tossed on the roof of a house. Tornadoes are relatively rare. They've occurred on the North American continent for millions of years and probably without any regularity. There's no way to know if any ever came through the Springfield area before the one last week. As human culture(s) emerged on this continent tornadoes must have had a high impact on people long before histories were written. Laura Ingalls Wilder offers a breathtaking narrative in one of her Little House on The Prairie books of a tornado in South Dakota in which, among other things, two mules are carried aloft. One dies and the other is delivered safely to the ground. These stories foster fear and awe to such an extent that tornadoes, as a source of terror, are introjected into our imaginations. Our only adaptation so far is the "weather channel" but in Springfield at least, in the storm last week, the warnings came to late

1 comment:

KBW said...

Alex, I like your comments about what most people don't recognize when it comes to such damage—trees are accounted for when destruction is quantified in dollars—its a good point.

Spending so much of your life in the Whites, you probably thought you'd seen some of the worst weather Mother Nature has to offer... I am guessing this was a new one for you. Glad you are okay. Be well.