Thursday, March 16, 2006

House Tornado

Like many, I didn’t get to bed on Sunday night. I was fortunate that instead of digging my family out of the twisted wreckage of a house, I spent the pre-dawn hours bailing out the overflowing cauldron that was my sump pit.

Occasionally, after dumping a five-gallon bucket of ground-filtered rain water down the driveway, I’d take a break and turn on the car radio** for updates on the citizenry’s fate amidst the calamity. I was captivated by the reports that were coming in from those areas that were hit the hardest. The fact that radio offers no visual component only added to the excitement, as is often the case when we’re called upon to use our imaginations to provide the missing pictures.

Among those who spoke over the airwaves, there was a noticeable tendency to personify the tornadoes that struck at our city.** Jim Leach spoke of a vengeful tempest that was dishing out rebuke to a people who may have grown too comfortable in thinking that they were immune to its wrath. A government official spoke of a bullying force that was indiscriminate in leveling punishment to rich and poor alike. No one, thankfully, spoke of it as God’s reprisal for the decision to add sexual orientation to the city’s discrimination ban.

To them and to many in the area, this wasn’t a case of warm, wet wind emanating from the Gulf of Mexico forcing itself up into a colder layer of Canadian-born winds which then produced a funnel cloud. This was an egregious assault on our city.

It’s understandable that those who were experiencing the awesome power of the storm firsthand would speak of it as evil. A sober analysis of climatic conditions probably isn’t possible when roofs are being torn off houses and power line poles are being snapped like toothpicks. I would go as far as to say that it is healthy to take such a view, to direct anger and blame at the tornadoes themselves. It’s good for a community to have a common enemy, especially one that can only be combated through a collective resolve not to bow down in its wake. Besides, you can’t really blame the government for this one.

From the relative safety of my far south side home, I didn’t experience the trauma that might have caused me to see the tornadoes as an embodiment of a vindictive force. The only scourge I potentially faced was damp carpeting in my basement and spoiled meat in my freezer, hardly the stuff of biblical-level retribution.

To me, what happened on Sunday night was a random act of nature, but there is nothing random about what occurred in its aftermath. And with exceptions made for those who lost their homes or livelihood, you’d have to be pretty cynical not to see most of it as positive.

Save for the lowlifes who were pillaging the belongings of people whose lives had been stripped bare, everyone seems to be conducting themselves admirably and to have absorbed the blow with a stiff upper lip. The efforts of volunteers and public works employees are inspiring. The media has been tireless in their efforts to cover what is a historic and fascinating story. And drivers are reacting with surprising restraint at the many intersections that have been turned into four-way stops. They are actually stopping.

The high winds have also swept clean some of the divisiveness in the city. The issue of smoke-free establishments becomes a bit less contentious when entire bars have been turned into beer gardens. The shades of red and blue are less stark on talk radio and the editorial page when the villain is a twister and not an elected leader (although Chris Britt did use the occasion to get a dig in at the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina.) As our police officers continue to pull extra duty after putting themselves in harm’s way on Sunday, Courtney Cox has even had the good taste not to file any new suits against them, an act of restraint that seems almost unfathomable.

But there is no one I am prouder of than my eldest daughter. Having taken on the role as our family’s designated worrier early in her young life, she was the one who needed the most comforting when twice we roused the kids from their beds and hustled them down into the basement. After assuring her that a basement is a bulwark in the path of a tornado, she quickly shifted her anxiety away from her own well-being, and began worrying about her best friend whose house doesn’t have a subterranean level. Such compassion and concern at such a young age is truly commendable. But she might have thrown a little sympathy my way after my valiant efforts in stemming the tide of a torrential flow of ground water that was seeping into our house.

*This might not be very descriptive of the content, but it isn't everyday that you get the chance to use the title of a Throwing Muses album to headline a blog post.

**Jim Leach proved himself a hearty soul with his sleep-defying coverage.

***WMAY’s Molson and Lee are following suit by asking listeners to help them name the two tornadoes that swept through town earlier this week.

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