We’re Not in Mississippi Any More

Posted May 4th, 2011 at 2:22 pm (UTC-4)
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You may know the charming story of Dorothy, the Kansas farm girl who, with her cute little Cairn terrier Toto, was picked up by a howling tornado and transported to a magical land in Frank Baum’s book The Wizard of Oz, and in an even better-known movie.

No indeedy, we're not in Kansas!  (Wikipedia Commons)

No indeedy, we're not in Kansas! (Wikipedia Commons)

Astonished by their new surroundings amid little people called Munchkins and a winding yellow-brick road, Dorothy remarks, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

And coming out of the deadly spate of tornadoes that raked the American South this Spring, we’re hearing about somewhat similar, but entirely real, stories of things being picked up and carried a long, long way — though most don’t involve cute little girls and puppy dogs.

The New York Times reports that several massive, swirling funnel clouds that battered entire communities to bits picked up treasured pieces of the residents’ lives and carried them unbelievable distances before returning them to earth.

Seen from space, this is a huge line of tornado-producing thunderstorms, coursing across the eastern United States.  (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin.)

Seen from space, this is a huge line of tornado-producing thunderstorms, coursing across the eastern United States. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin.)

According to tornado experts, heavy objects such as cars and humans cannot be “sucked up” into the clouds and carried long distances.  They are simply too heavy.  A tornadic cloud can, however, lift such an object into its vortex, transport it a short distance as the tornado dipsy-doodles across the landscape, and spit it out of the top of its whirling mass of air and water — almost certainly, in the case of a person or mule or household pet, hurling it to its death.

But light, fluttery objects are something else again.  The Times tells of several pieces of family memorabilia that had lain securely in people’s homes in one southern state one minute, only to be discovered more than a hundred kilometers away in another state a few hours later.

David and Sharon Newton stand stop what little is left of their home in Concord, Alabama, after one of this Spring's killer storms leveled it.  (Wynter Byrd/AP)

David and Sharon Newton stand stop what little is left of their home in Concord, Alabama, after one of this Spring's killer storms leveled it. (Wynter Byrd/AP)

A twister dipped into Mississippi on April 27th, for instance, killing Elvin Patterson and his wife and pulling a great deal of debris aloft.  Later, following a storm in her own community 282 kilometers (175 miles) away in Tennessee, a woman found a picture of Patterson, holding his family dog, in her office parking lot.

Suspecting that it was a photo of a storm victim, she went to a new Facebook lost-and-found page created by an Alabama woman who had found her own yard littered with other people’s mementos.  And on that site, on which more than 600 photographs of recovered objects had been posted within a few days of the storms, Elvin Patterson’s granddaughter recognized the photo.

“That man is my granddaddy,” Emily Washburn reported. “It would mean a lot to me to have that picture.”  And have it she would.

By the way, the dog in that photograph of her granddaddy was, or is — I’m not sure whether it survived — named “Yoyo.”  It’s not “Toto,” but it’s close enough to catch your eye.

****

Reaping the Whirlwind

I’ve heard that expression a thousand times and never completely known what it meant.  But since I’m talking tornadoes today, I figured that now would be a good time to find out.

The full expression, taken from the Bible (Hosea 8:7), is, “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” It’s a metaphor, meaning that if you toss something into the wind, you cannot be sure where that wind will carry it.  Things can get out of hand because the wind cannot be controlled, and the harvest of what you’ve sown can be a great deal of damage.

That’s a typical Landphair tangent, a loose end that I felt compelled to close.

This photo was snapped after a monster tornado dipped down upon the west side of Cleveland, right next door to Lakewood, in 1953.  (Courtesy of Earl Maki)

This photo was snapped after a monster tornado dipped down upon the west side of Cleveland, right next door to Lakewood, in 1953. (Courtesy of Earl Maki)

And while I’m at it, I do want to mention that I’ve had firsthand experience with tornadoes, as a boy back in my hometown of Cleveland.  Our modest house in Lakewood, the working-class suburb directly to the west of the city, was never battered, thankfully, but I can remember many a jet-black sky, an unearthly calm, and pelting hail followed by ungodly winds strong enough to knock over shrubs and tear off shutters. And I remember three or four retreats to the cellar as the storms approached.

Like Dorothy, I had my dog with me, too: Taffy, though, not Toto.

I recall, too, seeing devastation of Alabama, Oklahoma, or Kansas proportions after a monster tornado cut a swath through Cleveland’s East Side.

A classic funnel cloud.  No one would discount the danger if this thing were bearing down.  (Greg Stumpf, Natl. Oceanographic and Atmospheric Admin.)

A classic funnel cloud. No one would discount the danger if this thing were bearing down. (Greg Stumpf, Natl. Oceanographic and Atmospheric Admin.)

Tornadoes — whose winds have been clocked as high as 511 kph (318 mph) in a 1999 Oklahoma twister — are spawned by the collision of warm, moist air with a cold front.  In some ways they are more terrifying than massive, roaring hurricanes because they are highly localized, sudden, and unpredictable.  And unlike the situations that you see in those “storm-chaser” videos in which funnel clouds can be spotted far away and sought out or avoided, twisters that strike in developed areas, especially at night, can drop from the sky like avenging angels, wreaking havoc block to block, even house to house, and completely sparing the structures and families next door.

There doesn’t appear to be any truth to the wives’ tale that tornadoes seek out mobile homes, by the way, despite the uncanny number of trailers that end up strewn in pieces during these storms.  Mobile homes aren’t tornado magnets, but they’re easy-to-lift pickings when one comes along.

This is a typical funnel cloud dropping out of a raging "Tornado Alley" thunderstorm in Oklahoma.  (Ron Przybylinski, Natl. Oceanographic and Atmospheric Admin.)

The unpleasant truth is that you have a better chance lying down out in the open, right in the path of the funnel cloud, than you do hiding under the bed or sink or couch — or anywhere else for that matter — inside mobile homes.

They don’t have basements in which to cower, that’s for sure.  And in any situation in which a tornado is bearing down, prayer is highly recommended.

****

Monobookist

This last item has nothing to do with tornadoes, but I found it worth noting.

Last week, the New York Times carried a delightful story about a fellow in Manhattan who opened a book store.

"Martian Summer?"  It's over there -- and there, and there, and there -- in Kessler's bookshop. (rachelkramerbussel.com, Flickr Creative Commons)

Book, as in one book.  Just as cupcake shops here in Washington sell just cupcakes, and a meatball shop elsewhere in New York City sells only meatballs, Andrew Kessler sells only one book: his own.

It’s called Martian Summer, about time he spent inside mission control for a NASA Mars mission.  Kessler calls himself a “monobookist,” and he’s apparently doing quite well.

I prefer meatballs — and can’t eat cupcakes — but I salute him for his ingenuity.

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Memento. A valued souvenir that’s often a reminder of a family event or journey. The word is derived from Latin words meaning “remember.”

Parapet. A wall-like barrier extending above the edges of the roof. Atop medieval castles, soldiers protected behind these walls hurled arrows and even boiling oil down on attackers.

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Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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