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After spending several years in social services, Nicole has finally followed her lifelong dream of being a full-time writer. In addition to her work for The Hudsucker, Nicole is also a staff writer for Womanista. An avid comic book fan, BBQ aficionado, professional makeup artist and first-time mom, Nicole can be found exploring Kansas City rich history when she's not blogging about suburban life at Suburban Flamingo.

Alley Life: Experiences Growing Up in Tornado Alley

It’s always said that they sound like freight trains or like jet engines operating at full speed just over your shoulder.  They do sound like freight trains and jet engines but they also have this ghastly howl, a piercing whistle of a cry that makes them sound for all the world like a menacing animal-machine bent on utter destruction and vengance.  It is a sound that haunts your soul forever after you’ve heard it.  You see, tornadoes aren’t just destructive when they’re on the ground.  Even the unsuccessful storms are enough to scar you and if you grow up in Tornado Alley you have more than your fair share of scars.

I was born and raised in Southeastern Missouri, just a few miles away from the Mississippi River.  It’s beautiful there with lush hills and deep woods interspersed with farm fields dotted with livestock and colorful with wheat, corn, and soybeans.  It isn’t “Big Sky Country;” Montana has the market cornered on that, but the sky in Southeastern Missouri is wide and clear, the blues sometimes so blue you can’t help but walk looking up.  That same sky holds more than beautiful blues, countless stars, and fluffy clouds though. Dark, swirling grays and the threat of death also inhabit the skies and for a handful of months each year you live in constant stalemate with that darkness, never knowing when the sky will fall.  It’s a place where elementary school tornado drills are more common than fire drills and people understand that tornadoes don’t take you to Oz.  A lot of kids are actually afraid of The Wizard of Oz.  The threat is truly that real.

Image Credit: MGM

Every year the headlines are clogged with the story or stories of some monster tornado ripping its way mercilessly through an innocent community.  There are thousands of words devoted to the devastation and inevitably questions start to rise until eventually someone asks why would someone want to live somewhere that this kind of chaos was a part of life.  Tornadoes are a known quantity.  Why stick around where they are?  It’s a simple question with only a simple answer: we live here because we’ve learned to live with the storm.

I have been fortunate in my life.  My family has never lost its home or a loved one due to a tornado. We have however, had more than a few close calls and even a little bit of property damage from the winds and pitches that give birth to the cyclonic monsters. I’m often told about a day when I was around four years old and playing outside on a late spring afternoon when the weather abruptly changed. The story goes that as the sky darkened and turned a sick green shade my mother hustled us into the house and into the basement as something menacing swept its way towards us. I may not remember the actual moments or my mother’s panic, but I do have deeply buried in the files of my brain the sounds of that afternoon committed to memory.  It was the sound of a train, not unlike the trains that groaned their way through the dark down by the river most nights of my childhood, and the bitter howl of something cruel.  It didn’t last long, but it was enough to scare me and when the howling stopped and we finally came upstairs the carport, a little covered space we had been standing on merely minutes before was completely and utterly gone.

That was the first scar a tornado left on me. It would not be the last.  Over the course of my childhood there would be many brushes with the cyclone, evenings spent hanging out in the basement with the old television tuned into the local weather channel or, in storms where the electricity went and we were cast into deep darkness, good old KTJJ and their serious weather mixed with twangy old country. (To this day the KTJJ call letters on the radio make my spine prick up and my eyes dart skyward.)  Some memories are good ones, where the storm ended up not being all that serious and it resulted in a night camping in the basement. Others are chilling, like the night my mother went to use the restroom in the dead of night, heard the growling, glanced out a window, and saw the funnel churning through the sky above our house. That was a night where my mother dragged us all out of bed and hustled us towards the basement with the urging for us not to look out the window.  That tornado wouldn’t hit the ground on our house, but did just across the road, chewing its way through some farmland before bouncing back up into the sky and disappearing to torment another place down the line.

Wichita, KS 2012 Image Credit: KWCH-TV/ Tim VanderZwaag

Over the course of my childhood, houses just mere feet from mine would disappear in the black of a funnel, reduced to timber and scrap many times. I would drive home from school events in high school only to find my dad standing on the porch watching the sky for rotation while my mother and brother carried some blankets and pillows downstairs.  As an adult having moved away from Missouri and gone to Kansas I have called back home more than a couple of times only to be told I would have to call back later–they were knee-deep in a tornado warning and the sky was a sick green.  And once?  I turned on the news to hear about how a massive storm system wiped out part of the town just north of us, a tiny community that I had once driven through every day to go to my old summer job.

I have spent countless hours of my life hiding in basements, huddled in bathtubs with my cat, a mattress over us as the howl and roar deafened overhead, feeling the shudder when the news tells me that we’re under a tornado warning.  The day of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado just a few weeks ago I was sitting in my living room flipping between the Weather Channel and CNN–I was keeping an eye on our own sky as much as I was the tragedy, because we too were under a serious risk of massive storms.  Even as I saw the devastation on the television, there was the same familiar surge of fear, the ache, and a sweeping sense of understanding all in one ball.  It’s an emotion that I call acceptance and as crazy as it sounds, it’s a comfortable feeling.

I think a lot of people who live here in Tornado Alley, especially those who have been lifetime residents, have. It can lead to complacence–you always hear stories of people who simply don’t take the warning siren seriously anymore–but for a lot of us it’s just an acceptance that being here, in this beautiful part of the world comes with a risk.  We don’t really get the earthquakes and tsunami risks that the west coast has.  The north certainly has more snow and cold weather than we do.  Hurricanes in general aren’t the problem for us that they are in the east and the coastal south.  We generally think anyone living in the path of a hurricane or on a fault line might be a little crazy, just like they think about us living under the tornadic sky but ultimately it’s just the trade we make.  The storm is part of what makes us who we are and that makes it worth it.  Dorothy had it right: there’s no place like home.

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