After experiencing yet another tornado in Little Rock this past weekend, I reflected on how the technology of tornado warnings has changed over the years.
The first warning I experienced was Elizabeth Beatty. I was at Bubba’s house, and we watched the sky turn dark and then black. The wind whipped around and the rain came down sideways. She and I sat mesmerized, watching it all through her living room picture window. When the storm was over, we went outside and surveyed the damage wrought by the wind, and most of the neighborhood joined us. Then, Elizabeth Beatty, a few years my senior, ran through the streets, like a horseless Paul Revere, yelling, “A tornado’s comin’! A tornado’s comin’!”
Terrified, we all scurried back into our respective houses. Bubba had no basement, and so we ran to the teeny-tiny bathroom to hide in the tub, where we waited. And waited. And waited.
Soon, the sun appeared, and we figured that Elizabeth didn’t know everything, so we went back outside.
We soon discovered that Bubba and I had watched the tornado from the window. Sheriff Tuffy Davis had received a recorded message at his office BEFORE the storm, but because he wasn’t there, he didn’t hear it until AFTER the tornado hit. So he spread the word, including to Elizabeth Beatty’s father, that a tornado was imminent.
Shortly after that, my parents added a third bedroom, with a basement underneath, to our house. I watched Jim-Bob and Tom-Bob Frye (they were brothers) pour concrete for our tornado shelter. My parents probably wanted storage space, too, but after my earlier experience, I was happy to have a place to go if the time came. And it did. We probably heard the warning over the radio, and we went to sit on the basement stairs to wait – except for my dad. He went outside to see what was going on, and did that every time we got word of an impending storm. I never could figure it out.
When we moved into our house, Sylvia mentioned that the tornado siren was on the edge of the property. Because Sedalia is more tornado-prolific than Thayer, we soon found out that it was loud enough to wake the dead. It certainly woke us. I remember one in June 1990, around midnight. Emily was 18 months old, we had lived in the house only since March, and my mother was staying with us. That siren went off, and Max looked like the cat in the cartoon – the one that is startled by the mean dog and ends up with its claws in the ceiling. Disoriented, we stumbled to the basement, my mother with her dog in tow, and me, carrying Emily. Max acted like my father, though, and headed out the front door. He just wanted to see what was going on.
He came downstairs and said that something was wrong; there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Soon after, we heard on our height-of-technology transistor radio that a chemical accident had occurred at Alcolac. We trudged back to bed, cursing Alcolac with every breath.
That siren kept us well-informed about impending weather for years, until the city got new equipment and took it down.
Now, however, technology has come so far that on Monday night, we got our warning via cellphone. Deep in slumber, I was rudely awakened by a squawk coming from my phone. Disoriented and again looking like that cartoon cat, Max got up and stumbled around. “Where do we go?” I had no idea, but we decided on the lobby. And get this. Not only had technology provided us the warning, the television in the lobby showed radar that located the tornado pretty much right over our heads. Right then, however, the television lost its signal because of the weather. I immediately saw the value of the old-fashioned transistor radio.
The good news is that all the way from the loud voice to the loud squawk we have been effectively warned, and none of us has been hurt. But fraidy-cat that I am, I never go outside to look. Like sensible people, I take cover. I hope you do, too.
Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.