Last week we had 28 tornadoes in North Carolina. We have more tornadoes than most people think, but they are usually EF0s or EF1s and they come throughout the spring and summer, often shaking people up who are near them but rarely doing much damage beyond a small area where they touch down.
Saturday’s storms were in 8 strong diagonal lines, reaching from the southwestern corner of the state to the northeast corner,embedding individual tornadoes which traveled up to 150 and 200 miles, doing damage all the way. They were as devastating along their surgical paths as any hurricane, of which we are much more accustomed, and they were much more frightening up close than they ever look on TV.
I left downtown Raleigh as a huge tornado approached from the other side of town. As I crossed a flyover bridge I looked right at it. It was so big, it didn’t seem like it could be a tornado. I kept driving, because it sounded (from the radio) like I’d be driving away from it, and I was, but at some point I entered one of the edges, where horizontal rain made the whole world white, I could barely keep my shuddering car on the road, and where I was really scared the quarter sized hail was going to break my windshield. After pulling over beneath an underpass a mile from my house (along with about 20 other cars) and having to leave when it started to flood, I dragged myself into the house, shaking. Since our neighborhood was just having a thunderstorm, my husband was fairly cavalier. I told him that I had just driven the scariest 6 miles of my life.
(It is unnerving to drive through flying debris and it is creepy to find yellow insulation all over your neighborhood, but no one we know was hurt and all our kids are alright. Raleigh has rallied to help those who lost everything and we will continue to do so.)
The only scarier experience I’ve ever had was 6 hours spent in a Force 9 gale, beating back to the Dardenelles Straits across the Marmara Sea in a 35 ft sailboat. I’d been on watch that morning at daybreak, marveling at the dusky dolphins surfing alongside in the silvery light, not much noticing the blood red sunrise. “…red sky in the morning, sailors take warning” was trumped by communing with nature.
Later that afternoon the wind went up to 10 knots, and then 15 and 20 and 25, and so forth, until I was pulling down the mainsail and raising a storm jib the size of a napkin, and the captain determined we had to turn back. We didn’t have enough boat to push through it. All that black afternoon we sailed back to the shelter of the historic straits between Greece and Turkey, with waves the size of two-story houses looming up over the stern. It was totally terrifying, several boats were lost, and it was a long time before I could watch storms at sea, even on a TV screen, without shuddering.
The 6 terrifying minutes were 30 years ago. I was 8 months pregnant and walked in on an armed robbery in the German bakery near my office in Las Vegas. I was halfway to the counter, thinking the guy at the cash register didn’t look “right” when I heard a heavily accented voice in the back yell, “he’s got a gun!” I simply turned around and walked back to the door, expecting a bullet to fly before I got to there, and then before I got to my car. It didn’t. I drove to my office, stood at the counter in the break room and ate my whole lunch, standing up, waiting for my heart to slow down. The bakery folks were locked in their walk-in refrigerator for hours, but no one was killed.
The common element was that each time, in each circumstance, the only option was to keep going, plowing through, hoping whatever resources available were enough: the car made it, the boat didn’t sink, and the robber didn’t shoot me. But each time, after the scariest part was over, there was a “jello period” where everything kind of dissolves as you realize you are okay, but “that was really close!”
The adrenalin rush of the crisis and the endorphin rush of surviving are as close as I ever need to be to real danger. You won’t find me choosing danger for excitement – so don’t ask me to jump out of a perfectly good plane, for example. But I do understand why people do it.