Monday, May 22, 2006

What to do when nature throws a curveball: baseball-sized hail

Thunderstorms: source of excitement but also fear for those who experience them.

By Elaine Shein

After some wild storms in the West last week, discussion among some of the staff at Capital Press showed we each have different definitions of what is a bad storm.

As several people talked about experiencing heavy sheets of rain, hail, high winds, multiple flashes of lightning and booming thunder, and acknowledged hearing weather warnings on radio and television stations, one particular skeptic kept shaking his head.

Capital Press managing editor Carl Sampson kept declaring this was nothing, not a REAL storm, just a sprinkle really, and nothing as scary as what he has experienced in the past. He shared what it feels like to see a whole town disappear just down the road from where it used to be, or to know that several of the neighbors' farms are gone because of a tornado.

It was obvious that he was the one from the Midwest, where Tornado Alley is not just a nickname but a way of life for several months, and where frequent travelers knew they should expect airport delays because of storm cells threatening even aircraft in the area.

Whenever the humidity rose, the clouds of awfully dark blue, gray and green began to swirl, wind began to pick up, rain became more sideways and drops grew larger, and of course the animals in the house or yard or on the farm began to act strange, the signs pointed to a horrible storm coming soon.

Occasionally tornadoes do appear on the West Coast, such as in eastern Oregon last week, but it’s much more infrequent.

Send kids to spot tornadoes

Growing up in Western Canada, my brothers and I always were on the lookout for tornadoes as soon as the first spring storms started to hit. It became part of our routine each day: check the weather forecast if any warnings had been given for our area, and if any dark clouds were coming, my father sent us kids up to the second floor of our house to peer out to see if we could spot either funnels or streaks of white signifying bad hail in the approaching storms. We also would sometimes receive phone calls from neighbors or relatives to let us know if bad weather had already gone through their area.

There were no tornado sirens in the sparsely-populated farming area where my family lives, so this was the next best warning system.

If we spotted what looked like a bad storm, then we had options: if it looked like hail was on the way, we quickly rounded up all the chickens and turkeys and chased them into the coop. This was when I decided that turkeys, followed by chickens, were the most stupid living creatures on earth. I know a lot of people encourage free range chickens be raised, but in stormy areas we have learned that free range chickens will NOT run away from approaching storms but instead run wildly around in circles when a storm hits. Any chickens we couldn’t round up would usually become bruised or killed from hailstones when they hit. They never learned from the dog and cats which dived under granaries at the first hint of thunder. Often together, no matter how much they hated each other.

Hide the trucks

If we didn’t have any calves or pigs to chase inside, next on our list was to move any vehicles off the yard and into our big Quonset. Huddled against the machinery, these dusty, dented half-ton trucks were safer there than risking their already stone-chipped windshields against the hail.

If we felt it was going to be a REALLY bad storm, we also placed pillows against some of the house windows after making sure we had closed every window in the house against the rain. This was to help give a bit more protection against the hail.

And then finally we would scoot downstairs ourselves, waiting until the storm passed.

Probably the worst storm that hit our farm was when I was a teenager. We had gone through all the steps but braced ourselves for the worst. We knew there would be a lot of hail, just from how the wind was howling and there was the continuous rumble of thunder in the distance growing louder; the temperature plunged drastically.

Our house had a small porch to the north, with linoleum floor, and then there was the kitchen, also with linoleum, and finally our living room with its 1-inch high shag rug. At first we thought we would be safe in the house, glancing occasionally out the porch window to see if the storm had yet arrived.

Baseball-sized hail strikes

And then we saw the hailstones start to come down … in disbelief we saw that these were not the usual hailstones. Rapidly they went from quarter-size to baseball size. They hit the ground and then bounced another 9 feet or more into the air. We began to hear the roof begin to be pounded, and watched these wildly bouncing hailstones flying all over the yard.

My mother screamed at us to get away from the porch. Us kids ran to the living room, rather than downstairs, because there would be fewer windows to pass. The windows were starting to get smashed.

We had just reached the living room when one of the hailstones bounced off the ground, hurled through the porch window, and had so much force that it didn’t even touch the porch floor. It sailed half way across the kitchen at shoulder level before it landed and began to slide fast along the kitchen linoleum towards where we were standing. It hit the shag rug in the living room and still it kept going, at least another three or four feet, and finally stopped only two inches from our feet.

We stared down at it, this big icy block of ice still not melting. We glanced at each other, and stayed silent; all we could hear were all the windows on the north and west side of the house, in the basement, main floor and second floor as they shattered. The hailstones rattled so loud off the roof and walls of the house we would not have been able to hear each other at that point if we even dared to shout anything.

Broken windows, battered walls

When the storm passed, we finally emerged from the house and saw the yard filled with the white hailstones, mostly the same giant size. It was clear that the garage, the barn the house … anything with windows had been beaten bad. The sides of buildings that faced the storm had deep round imprints in them from all the hail. (For years my mother tried to cover these indents with several layers of paint, but 30 years later we can still see them from a side view, and still feel the curves as we ran a hand over the boards.)

The phone began to ring later that day. Neighbors compared what damage had been done to vehicles, how many turkeys, ducks or chickens they had lost, how even some newborn calves hadn’t been able to handle the storm. Our school 11 miles away had also had all the windows on one side of it smashed out. Trees were stripped off leaves, but luckily crops were still being seeded at the time and the crop wasn’t lost. We also were thankful no one had been injured.

In our freezer for several months we kept a few of the hailstones to remind ourselves of nature’s wrath but also to have proof for relatives who came to visit.

The lesson learned at that time prepared me for future storms. As a reporter I covered a lot of tornado and high wind storms, but usually after the storms had passed. I would talk to families that miraculously survived, and I'd take pictures of steel grain bins twisted and crumpled against each other like tin cans; a garage picked up, flung 500 feet upside down on its roof; houses moved off foundations and their roofs peeled back like a sardine can. And I was thankful that lives had been spared despite the disaster.

Tornado in rearview mirror

Like about five years ago when I was driving from work and watched in disbelief as a tornado formed only about five miles away … and was heading towards my place. I watched it in my rearview mirror as I raced home to hide in my basement.

After the storm passed, without my basement being ripped apart over top of me, I ventured carefully out and … there were some of my neighbors across the street, sitting on their porch, drinking beer, and talking about what a rush it was to see the storm.

“Wow, should have seen it … there were like, five or six funnels twirling around each other right over our houses but they didn’t come down! It was SOOO cool!”

We were very lucky. The tornado had been on the ground for several minutes and had reached within a half block of the city’s western edge … then suddenly lifted above and twirled as a harmless funnel (along with a few others) over my part of town. It wasn’t the first time we had storms in our areas. I knew that some small tornadoes had touched down in my neighborhood only a few years before, and one family two blocks from me had their same house roof hit twice within a couple of years from tornadoes. My real estate agent didn't mention it at the time when I bought the house. I found out later from neighbors.

Respect nature

Too often we don’t show enough fear when it comes to nature. On the West Coast, perhaps it’s a good thing that we still marvel and talk about storms even when these storms are gentle compared to those in the MidWest or the Canadian prairies.

I admit I do miss the severe thunderstorms and the tremendous lightning shows of nature. I always yearn to see them each spring.

But I don’t miss the fear that also rumbles along with the storms.

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