How to Survive Severe Weather

It started with a dark sky and an email with the subject line, Tornado and Storm Safety.

Should the tornado warning sirens sound, please:

-          Stay OFF the elevator in case the power goes out

-          Head to the breakroom away from the windows

-          If danger seems imminent, go to the stairs

I look out at the dark sky to consider the email. How would you know if danger is imminent? Are the stairs really the place to go during imminent danger? After all, the breakroom has snacks. Checking the radar, I see a line of red and purple storms. The weather site has messages with red exclamation marks, storm warnings. Then… the worst sign of them all that imminent danger is nigh… a text from my mom. “Have the storms hit?” she asks, “Are you safe?” That’s it. We are all going to die. I go to my co-worker’s office, Deb, to announce our doom and get preferences if we should die in the breakroom or on the stairs.

Deb has her purse and car keys out. “Schools are about to dismiss.” She tells me, “I’m going to go pick up my kids.” At that moment, my brain spins. This is no longer about whether to hunker down with the sodas or the stairs. This is about being separated from my child during a potential disaster. The shit could very well be hitting the fan and I am going to be across town in some stairwell with absolutely no idea of whether or not he is okay…. not acceptable. Deb and I make a pact that if the sirens go off, we are headed not to the stairs or the breakroom, but to the parking lot.

I go back to my desk and look at radar maps. I text my mom that the storm has not hit yet and I am okay. I look out the window. The dark sky is eerily green. Then, the sirens sound. Subtle at first, then gaining momentum, they whoop through the air, filling it with intensity and dread. I grab my purse and keys. My cubicle-mate is reading with his ear plugs, apparently undisturbed by the commotion. I get his attention and tell him to go to the breakroom. I’ll be damned if I am going to spend all week training this guy to bring me Diet Coke only to have him get blown away in a tornado. Deb meets me in the hall. As everyone moves to the breakroom, we scurry downstairs.

We hit the lobby where people are looking out the windows at the weather. Apparently, they haven’t gotten any memos and seem a bit confused. All the people in the lobby are wandering in a daze, except the security guard. A hefty black woman with facial piercings, this woman, no one to be trifled with, is moving to the front doors with keys. It suddenly occurs to me they might lock down the building. “Come on!” I tell Deb, and we pick up the pace into a half walk/run that I hope won’t look too much like a mad dash for the exit. We make it through the front doors out into the parking lot. Under the ominous sky the sirens blare loud. Wind pushes spots of rain sideways through the air. Deb and I give each other high-fives over our grand escape. “Good luck!” I yell, and we move quickly in opposite directions toward our cars.

Once in the car, the sound of the sirens becomes intrusive and frankly, a bit terrifying. I turn on the radio to the shrieking blasts of a message from the emergency broadcast system.  Forget that… time for loud music. Slacker Radio, full blast, drowns out all sounds of imminent danger as I make the 15 minute drive to my son’s school.

I arrive at the school to see parents parking their cars and running to the building. I decide that is what I shall do as well. I park the car and text my husband that I am picking up our son. He texts back, “Did you call the school?” Call the school??? I’m AT the school. Just then I notice the crossing guard running to the school with his yellow slicker and stop sign. That guy looks like he has been through a couple of wars. If he is running, it is time to get inside. When I get to the building, they tell me the school is in lock down and that parents can take shelter inside the cafeteria. This is fine with me. I am in the same building as my son, this is now acceptable.

Eventually, there is somewhat of a lull in the storm because the sirens die down. Someone with a walkie-talkie announces they are going to start releasing kids and to form a line. He gestures to a side of the room. I start heading over there, but then I realize I have aimed for the wrong direction. I went to directly to the starting of the place. When I got to the actual line, it had already formed in the opposite direction. By the time I make it to the end, I will never get my kid. This calls for some anti-social behavior. I examine the first section of the line to see who will let me cut ahead. There is a lady who looks like she doesn’t speak English holding a baby. She wouldn’t stop me from cutting ahead. But, not speaking English and carrying around a baby means she already has enough problems without me cutting in front of her. After all, this isn’t Lord of the Flies.

Behind the lady who probably doesn’t speak English holding a baby is a slightly overweight dad in sweats and a stained t-shirt. Bingo. He agrees to let me cut in front of him with a nod. When someone lets you cut in front of them, there is the implied agreement that there will be small talk. I’m a civilized person, so I held up my required level of participation.

Dad in sweats and stained t-shirt, “Crazy day isn’t it?”

Me, “Uh-huh.”

Required small talk accomplished, I suddenly realize everyone is holding these purple cards with numbers on them. These are the purple cards they gave everyone to put in their car windows during afternoon pickup. My son goes to afterschool care, so I don’t know where our purple card even is.

I text my husband, “I don’t have that damn purple card.” He responds, “Surely they won’t hold you to that today.” I text back, “You don’t understand. It is Lord of the Flies over here. People are CUTTING IN LINE!”

As it turns out, they aren’t using the purple card system today. You are meant to tell the name of your child and the grade to a person with a walkie-talkie who will announce for the teacher to send them out. As it turns out, the lady ahead of me indeed does not speak English. She and a confused person with a walkie-talkie struggle to break their communication barrier and get across the names and grades of all her children. It seems to be taking inordinately long. In the meantime, the sirens once again begin to wail. Terrified girls in backpacks tearfully run into the arms of waiting parents.  The lady without English has given up with talking and begins writing children’s names and grade level numbers on the back of her purple card.

Just as I resign myself to living this surreal scene for all eternity, the school secretary approaches me. This is the same school secretary who has NEVER laughed at any of my jokes. She always regards me with what I perceive as particularly annoyed indifference. Her eyes are dead, like a shark’s eyes, eyes that have seen too many tardy students and irresponsible parents to mess with me and my tom-foolery. Now at this crucial moment in time, she stands before me, regards me grimly with her shark-dead eyes, and says, “Have they called for your son yet?” Astounded, I shake my head no and she straightaway calls out his name on her walkie-talkie.  Before I can thank her, she is gone.

Then, the moment I have waited for suddenly happens. I see my little boy. He walks calmly through the chaos of crying little girls, anxious parents, staff members yelling into walkie-talkies, and wailing sirens. Then, he looks at me and says, “You picked me up early today.”

I grab his hand and we head out. On the sidewalk in front of the school, a guy in a dress shirt is walking nonchalantly with two little girls. Obviously just out for an afternoon stroll in a little severe weather, this guy has it all together. He says not to worry too much about the sirens because they are set to go off not at signs of rotation, but merely at 60 mile an hour winds. He barely finishes this statement as the sky finally lets loose and a torrent of rain pours down. He and each of his girls immediately pop open umbrellas. My son looks at me accusingly because we have no umbrella. In turn, I give him a look that I hope says, “I just drove across town in a tornado to rescue you and NO I didn’t bring any umbrellas so just hurry and get yourself in the car.“ Which, he does.

To sum up a long story, we spend the rest of the afternoon hunkered down in the bathroom with our dog and a weather radio. The storms hit all around us, tossing tractor trailers back and forth like a child’s game, but we were safe. I don’t even know why we live here in tornado alley. It seems inherently like a bad idea.

If you do happen to live in tornado alley, remember to go to the stairs during imminent danger. I’m not sure how you will tell if the danger is imminent. My mom always calls to let me know. In case my mom forgets to call you, here is a t-shirt.

Because it is important to know when to head for the stairs.

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