Chapter 23

Tornado Watch

Blow By Blow In a Windstorm

MEMORIAL DAY, 1977 was well named! It is impressed in our memories forever. Driving back home to California from my 55th high school reunion in Michigan, Helen and I were wakened in our motel in eastern Kansas by a roar of rain. Two-and-a-half inches pounded down in two hours. Then the storm abated. We headed west, toward Salina, Kansas.


The sky darkened again. Everything was beginning to turn gray. The music on our car radio was interrupted by a weather announcement. The music didn't resume; the weather warnings did. Possibility of a tornado. In all our years, we had never been in a tornado. Not that we ever wanted to be. But if one was coming, I wanted to record the cadence.


"Get out the notebook," I said to Helen. "Let's record what happens." By the time she had notebook and pen in hand it was 11:00 a.m. Here are the notes she made:


11:00 a.m. Great storm clouds are gathering. They are deep black. We are heading into and under them. Lightning cuts the blackness. All cars have their headlights on. It is nearly dark now. It's beginning to rain.


11:10 a.m. Rain coming down in sheets now Very poor visibility. Glad this is a freeway. Socked in now. Total grayness. Visibility zero. Cars crashing. Rain pouring. Wind tugs at car.


11:11 a.m. All cars stopped—some under bridges—both sides of freeway.


11:12 a.m. Rain continues. Sheets of pounding rain. Sheets of lightning across sky. We started up.


11:13 a.m. Went into a rest area and stopped, along with other cars.


11:15 a.m. Car radio announced "Tornado watch in effect until 5:00 p.m."


11:17 a.m. Lightning sheets fill the air. Thunder crashes all around. We can hear it now that we are stopped.


11:21 a.m. Heavy hail begins hitting the car—hailstones gathering all around. Lightning almost constant. Hurricane warnings coming over car radio regularly.


11:24 a.m. Tornado watch extends over most of central Kansas—extending forty miles west and one hundred miles east at its worst. So we decide to head west. Maybe we can escape it. Rain is increasing in intensity. We are praying! Constant lightning makes our car radio sound like popping corn. Every overhead bridge is filled with parked cars. Francis is glad he didn't wash our car yesterday.


11:30 a.m. Lightning almost blinding Francis as he drives. He saw streaks going in four directions from a central focus. We must be crazy to be out in this.


11:31 a.m. Another overpass with more parked cars. Maybe we are the only travelers. But we stick to our plan of heading west to get out of the eye of the storm.


11:32 a.m. The most intense lightning. A great streak held steady in the sky for a moment.


11:33 a.m. Another overpass. More parked cars. Radio giving severe weather reports constantly.


11:36 a.m. Intense blinding flashes ahead. I've never seen harder rain. It's unbelievable. Heading through Salina.


11:39 a.m. Biggest lightning yet. Hail again. All Salina's street lamps are on. Gray-black sky ahead is a perfect screen for watching lightning flashes. Wide screen effects. Pass sign to Russell-67 miles. Water on highway splashes all over car. A big bus just inundated us. The water is so intense on road Francis must drive in second or low gear.


11:45 a.m. The sky ahead is slightly light—like dawn. The volume of water on the road increases. This is Memorial Day—a day to remember. The rain is so loud it drowns out conversation. Water is so deep on the pavement it's difficult to steer. Many cars are now traveling, however.


11:48 a.m. Rain may be slackening slightly but water on road is the biggest problem. The whole sky lit up with sheet lightning. Fields beside road have deep water. Surely grain will not stand in such a heavy pounding downpour.


11:50 a.m. With the rain slackening we can now better observe car lights. Those coming—white—and the red ones going our way make beautiful reflections in the wet pavement. It's getting brighter in the western sky. Just passed Mulberry Creek going full tilt. As we go under overpasses the sound is as a hesitation in music—a rest from rain. A very brief rest.


11:58 a.m. A field at our right is completely under water. The rain is slackening. I saw a red-wing blackbird fly across the highway. Every low spot in the fields is full of water. New little rivers are flowing out of the fields and off hills. As we can now observe the country, much is deep in water. Cattle are standing disconsolately, not even chewing their cuds. The sky is darkening again but the sky north of us is brightening.


12:01 p.m. A strange translucent light comes into the darkness. It's good to know light is up there somewhere. We can now see a few cloud patterns ahead instead of solid gray blackness. As we proceed west we feel we are beginning to run out of the eye of this storm. Tornado watch warning included such places as Dodge City, Manhattan, Russell and Salina as the center, where we were at the height of the downpour. Francis just said, "I believe I can say I have no physical fears anymore." I'll admit I felt shaky during the terrific downpour. The fields of wheat are down flat. They look wounded. Water in furrows in ploughed fields makes beautiful patterns.


12:12 p.m. Definite light rifts lighting sky ahead.


12:16 p.m. Clearing overhead. Rain abating. The show may be nearly over.


12:25 p.m. Clouds are drifting across the sky ahead of us now like black smoky sails. Francis turned off the windshield wipers for a short period. The horizon is brighter and the Kansas prairie is revealed ahead. A new river has formed in a field we are passing. Wheat in this area looks better, not flattened by the storm. More birds visible. One on a sign post surveys its wet world. Cattle have started to graze again, although some are knee deep in water. Some cars travel without headlights now.


12:30 p.m. As we think back, with all that lightning we seldom heard the thunder. The rain and hail hit so hard the car was a sound box of fury. That was one-and-a-half hours of intense suspense, but something akin to awe and wonder filled us the entire time.