Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hearty stock in the Heartland

The latest word from the weather front.

I drove the little Mexican Pontiac to work yesterday. I had the choice of that,
the Jeep Grand Cherokee, or my GMC pickup. I took the smallest and weakest
vehicle because I knew myself well enough that in that vehicle I would not be
tempted to wade any questionable lengths and depths of water. This may have
saved my life last night.

Inside the plant, through the skylights and doors slid open to let out as much
of the oppressive heat as possible, it looked as if a mad lighting crew was
playing with special effects outside. Bright, brilliant summer sun shined in one
minute, then--as if turning the knob on a TV set--the light would lower to
almost nighttime levels. Back and forth, very quickly. Too quickly. It was

More national weather radios were present in the plant last night and fewer
workers arrived to clock in. We had another wave of storms scheduled to hit us
sometime between 9:00 and 10:00 PM. Between filing repair reports and requests
for spare parts, machine repairmen used their special access to the plant
computers to periodically crack through the blocks placed on our company's
system and bring up the National Weather Service radar. They sounded like broken
records when they'd come out to the rest of us on the job. "It's forming up over
Illinois. Getting stronger and bigger. And closer." We heard that for hours.
Arrival time was still 9:00 PM at the earliest.

Going outside for a cigarette (we cannot smoke in the plant), around 6:00 PM
several of us noticed what appeared to be a solid black wall, stretching from as
far as we could see to the northern and southern horizons, along the western
sky. Within the length of time it took to smoke a cigarette some of the closer
clouds parted and above the lead-colored wall towering thunderheads made
themselves visible, the classic flat-tops of dangerous storms reaching up into
the stratosphere. Another hellacious storm was heading our way rapidly. But it
was too close. It shouldn't have been within eyesight yet. What was this?

Checking with those few who had weather radios on, they reported this was a new,
completely unexpected storm that had simply popped up out of nowhere. This was
not the huge storm we'd been warned about. This one was completely new and had
formed without any warning whatsoever. And then it was upon us.

Workers ran to shut the big sliding doors in the plant. Rain and hail were
blowing in horizontally. The doors can be easily handled by one man under normal
circumstances. It was taking five and six men to wrestle them shut and lock them
down, a near-hurricane wind shaking and blowing the semi truck-sized doors as if
they were baby diapers hanging on a clothes line. Over the noisy racket in the
factory that is always present, we could hear explosions overhead. It was
thunder, yes...but some kind of horror movie thunder than was not familiar to
any of us. The best description I can give it was that it sounded like the crack
and deafening boom of artillery being shot and detonated in the sky over and
around the plant. No long rumbling, just godawful booms, one after the other.

Water began to leak in under the doors that had just been fought shut. Not
enough to be dangerous, but certainly enough to be damned unusual. When the
thunder overhead would relent for a few seconds, the roof of the place sounded
like dump trucks were pouring gravel on it. Simply a wild, driving,
ridiculous rain. A rain we had not expected and certainly did not need.

I've worked in many a factory, building and repairing machinery in the past
thirty-six years. Only once have I heard rain alone make that kind of sound, and
it was during the day of the Super-Outbreak in 1974 when hundreds of tornadoes
broke out in nearly every county in Tornado Alley. It was the memory of a day
that I did not desire to have resurrected. I mentioned this to several people on
my crew. A few of them had not been born yet by 1974. But they shuddered. They'd
seen television specials of that day on the History Channel, and on various
stations during the April anniversary of it. I hated to sound like an old war
horse, but being an old war horse I told them, "Boys, those specials never
showed the half of it." And they don't.

And still the main storm had not yet arrived...

The weather radio reports became too confusing to make any sense of or try to
figure out a pattern. They were issuing new information constantly, but it was
changing so rapidly no one could keep up with them. Automated weather stations
scattered around various places were giving reports of a half-inch of rain in
ten minutes, then the reports would cycle through different areas and all old
and new warnings were repeated, then they would warn everyone to take shelter
from areas about to go under (without indicating where "shelter" might be) and
then quickly read the reports from the same automated weather station mentioned
just ten or twelve minutes earlier and state that an inch and a quarter of new
rain had fallen there. I personally heard them say several times that what we
were experiencing and what we had experienced over the past several days was
"incredible, astonishing rain". You rarely hear superlatives like that over
official government stations.

This was not only heavy rain, it became a giant "downburst", the wind
shrieking straight down. The kind of horrible thing that drives jetliners into
the earth like tent pegs on landing approaches. The rain did not merely "fall".
It was being driven down by a furious wind and when it hit whatever surface it
landed on the raindrop simply exploded. Looking out the window it appeared as if
a fog was hovering over every flat surface within sight, a fog about a foot and
a half high which varied on whatever it hit, but was uniform to the height of
the object. A foot and a half of fog over the driveways, then a foot and a half
over trucks and cars--a fog taking the *same shape as the vehicle*--then a foot
and a half over outbuildings, taking their exact two-dimensional shape as well.
If you have never seen this, it's an eerie and amazing thing to behold.
Personally, I would rather watch it on television. But in this case we were all
directly under it, and it was stupendously loud, ridiculously loud.

This lasted for fifteen minutes or thereabouts, then tapered off rapidly. Like
all silly and unbelievable special effects seen on cheap movies, as soon as the
rain quit the late afternoon sun broke out. It was a dead calm, no wind at all,
and we had bright blue skies directly overhead. Remarkably, there was absolutely
no radar evidence of tornado activity associated with this storm by any station
within range of it.

The original storm was still ninety minutes away, the storm we'd been warned
about since morning.

Some people simply clocked out and left. It had been dicey enough for them
coming in at 3:00 and after this unexpected and perverse deluge they wanted to
try to get home before darkness fell. None of the foremen hassled them. They
were allowed to leave without question and wished good luck on their trips.

Everyone else went about their business and kept production running. We repair
crews stayed on our jobs. But every man and woman kept glancing at their

When it hit, about 9:30, it was less violent than whatever you would call the
thing we'd just been through. THAT storm was a cartoon storm, the kind of thing
you'd snarl at if you saw it on a movie. They don't make storms like that. Sure
we'd all seen it. We'd all heard it. We knew it really happened. Still, they
just don't make storms like that...

The "original" storm we'd been told to expect was merely an extremely violent
thunderstorm, heavy rain and a great deal of that remarkably titanic electrical
activity streaking from cloud to cloud and from cloud to earth. Even so, it was
not the deafening artillery fire-sound of the storm from nowhere. Just damned
loud and scary. It wasn't as alarming as the freak we'd already suffered
through. We're used to heavy thunderstorms here, and God knows we've seen enough
of them lately.

When it came time to leave at 11:00 PM, we noticed of the night machine repair
crew of around a dozen men, only three showed up. An equally small percentage of
the third shift production workers arrived. Those who did rushed in the plant,
soaked to the skin, and when they flipped back their hoods or lowered whatever
they'd held over their heads their expressions were those probably similar to
someone who had just seen a bigfoot or a UFO. Bewildered. Afraid, and not even
knowing if they should be afraid or not. Confused, not sure if they should be at
the plant or should have stayed home. And looking around for friends and
coworkers who were not present, and wondering if they had tried to make their
trips in the night and had met with disaster along the way.

U.S. 40 was reportedly still moving at a crawl, the whole of I-70 being shoved
off onto it miles to the east and west. All sorts of mad rumors flew around as
the new people began to tell their tales of driving in. I talked with a friend
who asked me how I planned to go home. I told him there was really only one
practical way for me. He was heading southwest, I was heading west. He said he
would follow me in his Jeep. I knew the roads by heart, he was only vaguely
familiar with them. But where I would turn off the blacktop, he would have a
straight and high-ground shot to S.R. 59, then he could take it south to home.

We lost each other in the parking lot and when we reached the only road home for
me I didn't know if he was ahead or behind me. But there was a string of lights
on that road headed west. As nearly as I could tell on the winding, hilly
blacktop I was the second car in line. Only one appeared to be ahead of me.

As we passed a couple of low areas, my hopes came up. Only trickles of water
splashed out from under the leading car as we drove through water running across
the road. It was probably moving as fast as a man could run, but it was shallow.

Then up to higher ground again, and the line of cars all accelerated a bit.
Whoever was driving ahead of me obviously knew the road. And also knew the
lowest points in it where still ahead.

We kept long distances between us. In the rearview mirror as I crested a hill I
could see five or six cars behind me, strung out for a half-mile or more.
Normally at this time of night I'm the only car on that road. This was the only
point in the road where a person could see that far in a straight line. One of
them had to be my buddy, but I didn't know which one. The rain stopped suddenly
(and thankfully), although flashes illuminated the woods and fields all around
us. Some of them looked like lakes, water as far as our lights would shine out
on them.

Then, one at a time, we began the descent into the Rocky Fork creek valley,
normally a pleasant little rural stream. It was the low point on the road. We
all slowed to a crawl heading down into the twisting blackness.

(Continued next post)

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