Tornado Warnings, Tornado Watches, Tornado Touch downs, Tornado….

I’m often baffled by weather reports. It’s not that they’re presented in some overly complex or complicated manner, it’s just that I don’t understand what their purpose is sometimes. Specifically, in the case of tornadoes. Why all the hoopla when it comes to tornadoes anyway?

Most anyone can tell when a bad storm is brewing, can’t they? You look into the sky and you visibly see the dark clouds congregating. The air becomes a little colder, the wind blows a little faster, and every animal within a certain radius either scurries into hiding or disappears altogether.

And then there’s us. Human beings. We stare up into the atmosphere, take it all in, and then wonder if it’s really going to storm or not. We look at the person next to us and pretend like we know a thing or two about rain: “Hey, it looks like rain” (and by all accounts, it usually does). And when the rain actually does come, we can reassure ourselves that hey, we’re pretty good at predicting the weather.

That’s the long and short of forecasting storms. Nothing too puzzling about it. But then there’s tornadoes. The brother of the hurricane; sister to the tsunami; and the cousin of the earthquake. You’ve got your extended family like the hailstorm, the blizzard, and the tidalwave, but tornadoes are truly a force which stands alone. Mudslides, flash floods, and volcanic eruptions can be just as few and far between, but nothing grabs the attention of local weathermen (and the casual onlooker) like the tornado.

They’re somewhat alien-like, aren’t they? Like a big tentacle coming out of the sky, just waiting to snatch up us puny Earthlings. It’s all very War-of-the-Worlds type stuff and yet, it’s a common phenomenon that we have to avoid and calculate if we are to stay well clear of the tornado’s wrath.

Which is why we have so many ways to announce their approach. The tornado “warning”, the tornado “watch”, we even have smaller versions of the tornado called “microbursts”, which kind of become tornadoes but aren’t really at all. It’s like we wanted it to be a tornado, but hey, it just didn’t have the whole funnel thing down enough. Move along please.

I’ve often wondered why that is the case. Why we always get in such a tizzy as it pertains to tornadoes. Is it because of the movie Twister? A film which puts Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt as certified “storm chasers” – folks that literally rush after the nearest tornado in hopes of being able to study these anomalies of nature. Think Jaws but without the water and you’ve got a good handle on what Twister tried its hand at accomplishing. Audiences were introduced to Cary Elwes playing a bad guy, “Bob’s road” became a real place, and people were led to believe that tornadoes made sounds like screeching aliens or roaring lions as they tried to “devour” everything in their path. My favorite part in the movie (somewhere near the middle) is when we’re educated on what an F-5 tornado is. For those who aren’t up to speed, the F-5 is a term of measurement on the Fujita scale – a scale which calculates how vicious tornado is by how it destroys or “eats”, as portrayed in the film. And when someone asks what it would be like to witness one, a fellow storm chaser slowly states, “The finger of God”.

Ooo, I just got goosebumps.

Well, Twister isn’t that old of a film and I’m fairly certain that tornadoes have been around longer than Bill Paxton or Helen Hunt, so what’s the deal? I know that many people (myself included) will frequently have dreams where a big tornado, scary and nasty, sucks them up, never to be seen again before waking up in a cold sweat. I, for one, have been chased by bears, wolves, and crazy people with chainsaws in my own dreams (don’t judge) but nothing is quite as terrifying as being sucked into a tornado. Look up what that means in a dream dictionary and it’ll tell you something like this: “you’re in turmoil”, which shouldn’t be much of a shock anyway. But the truth is, there’s a reason why we’d make a big budget film about tornadoes and a reason for why they’d represent tumultuous circumstances in the deep subconscious parts of our minds. And that reason is two-fold: tornadoes present us with an incredible sense of awe and simultaneously, an overwhelmingly unpleasant sense of fear.

In one regard, we are amazed by their power. A single funnel cloud can lift a whole house from the ground and deposit it miles away from where it once stood. And because of its dramatic power, the tornado is something to be afraid of. There’s nothing cutesy or cuddly about a rampaging twister – you either get out of the way or face the consequences of being swept up in its path. But that’s not all. Tornadoes are very specific in where and when they touch down. Unlike a hurricane which covers a huge blanket of space, the tornado leaves a trail that is easily seen from up above. Like the footprints of some giant monster moving about the countryside, tornadoes end up leaving their mark wherever they go. In that way, the tornado seems to be alive somehow; like it’s actively picking and choosing where it decides to run amok. We all know that it’s not possible for the tornado to decide which way it goes, but its unpredictable nature appears to give some illusion of thought process. Even if it’s totally chaotic, we still feel like the tornado was out to get us somehow.

Then there’s the fact that we can’t fight back. We don’t call in the national guard or the army when a tornado is imminent. That’s silly. The tornado will have its day and then it’ll be gone. Like a really bad in-law or a sudden rush of diarrhea (great parallels, right?), the tornado cannot be combated through conventional means. There’s no special weapon to take down a tornado; we can only move aside and wait for the chaos to be over.

I find this all rather fascinating, to be honest. As a kid, I loved storms. My family had 10 acres of land which sat on a hillside overlooking a vast valley. The horizon stretched from one end of the Earth to the other, or as far as you could see. So when a storm rolled in, you could see it coming from miles away. That was pretty cool, as I recall. And I sometimes wondered what it would be like to see a tornado coming in from off in the distance. Trees would sway from the mounting currents of wind, the grass would come up out of the ground, and the furniture on the front porch would move slightly, but none of those of things would have remained if a tornado were to hit unexpectedly.

My family’s house was never hit with a tornado and for that, I am grateful. But I always wanted to see one up close anyway. I’d be mindful of weather reports in our area and if the chance arose to see a touch down, I’d think about running off to go see it. And that’s when it hit me. The other realization as to why the tornado is so awe-inspiring and so deadly frightening at the same time: its proximity.

We can’t get close to hurricanes and be untouched, we can’t sit through a blizzard and enjoy the scenery, and we certainly can’t observe an earthquake in casual fashion. But what we can do is take in the sights and sounds of a roaring funnel cloud that’s within striking distance. That’s the difference-maker. I’d wager to guess that when people hear “tornado watch”, there’s a mixture of emotions taking hold inside. On one end, there’s that normal reaction which says, “Ok, I better stay inside tonight”, but I’ll bet there’s another part of us that says, “I wonder if it’ll get close enough that I see it up close.”

It’s interesting how that works. Most people don’t go running down to the nearest shoreline to see a tidalwave or a hurricane as it approaches (that just ain’t right), but the tornado gives us an opportunity to get up close and personal. To be feared? Yes, absolutely. Don’t go running out to storm chase because of this blog. I”m not saying that, but bear in mind the sheer magnitude of seeing one in close quarters. A truly frigtening experience, and yet altogether stunning at the same time.

Or just as the movie says, like the “finger of God”.


  1. I’ve never been in a big tornado but I did survive a devastating earthquake. These powerless and vulnerable experiences remind us to live life while we have the chance. But–whew–I wish it wasn’t such a loud message!

    • Wow, you were lucky. Being that I hail from the Midwest, earthquakes are few and far between. Good point too. Sometimes those loud messages seem more than we can handle!

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