Disasters of the Natural Variety

Yesterday morning at approximately 9:30 am PST, a smallish rumbling earthquake hit Los Angeles and woke me from a drooling slumber. It was the first earthquake I’ve ever been awake or sober enough to experience, and like any other natural disaster frightened me into rabid cable news channel surfing and knuckle gnawing for the rest of the afternoon.

Rounding out the list of phobias that render me a paralyzed, shivering goose bump�fear of heights, rodents, spiders, and hairy toes to name just a few�is a mammoth anxiety over potential natural disasters, thoroughly aggravated in my youth by my older brother’s daily tortuous threat: “Do what I say or the tornado will come and get you.”

Tornado season in Tennessee starts in mid-March and continues through July, sometimes hiccupping into the latter part of September. When thunderstorms aren’t uprooting forests or rearranging acres of farmland, the South often suffers hailstorms, flashfloods and torrentially ghoulish winds during this season. Rarely is there a week not littered with severe thunderstorm warnings blinking in red Helvetica across the bottom of “Days of Our Lives.”

In the Spring of 1983 on a seemingly innocuous March afternoon, I was making dirt and grass soup with a fellow eight year old neighbor when a warning siren sounded four blocks away at the local fire station. To my little third grade ears, it sounded like one of them there 18 wheelers we done seen on the highway when we would go visit granny in Kentucky and eat fried chicken with our fangers. Blissfully unaware of the pending tornado extravaganza, I quietly noted the passing truck and went back to picking rocks out of my mud soup.

Within one minute of its first pass, however, that there big truck done come back around and passed again. Then again within another minute. On its eighth pass I figured the truck just couldn’t remember where it done needed to be! And by this time every single resident of Cedar Oak Cove had gathered into a huddled mass of wonder in the middle of the street, staring up into the orange glow of oncoming clouds. Because, you see, that’s what Southerners do when faced with a plausibly disastrous situation: they gonna get themselves front row seats! And thus we have NASCAR.

After gathering enough information to piece together that it was in fact a tornado warning and that my neighborhood sat directly in the path of the red splotches on the radar screen, I spent the next seven years locked in my bathroom with all my stuffed animals, sleeping in the bathtub with my favorite pillow and a bucket of Cheez-its.

18 years later and over 1000 miles from any weather conducive to tornado formation, I’ve got earthquakes to worry about and no siren-ific warnings or radar screens to issue me into the tub and into safety. I wonder how long I can stand under a doorframe before passing out.