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Lessons from the Storm
Elizabeth Bennefield

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['Tornado' by

      Archna Jaideep Singh]
"Tornado" by Archna Jaideep Singh

Some couples set aside an evening each month to cook and serve a meal at a shelter for the homeless. Other families spend their vacations working on Habitat for Humanity projects or putting on entertainment programs for the local retirement center. My husband and I have found our own little niche as county emergency communications volunteers through our local amateur radio association. During the last airplane crash simulation, we found ourselves at the ambulance service office, notifying various hospitals of the numbers and conditions of victims (also volunteers) being routed to their emergency rooms.

When our county flooded, two years ago, we got involved in every aspect of response and recovery. We walked the dikes and checked on the welfare of the sand-bagging teams, and we coordinated the emergency radio net several times, with responsibility for keeping track of where all our radio operators were. Right after the onset of the flooding, immediately after an ice storm, we went out in the family car to locate safe routes for emergency vehicles to get to communities that had no telephones, power, or utilities. Sometimes, there were no safe routes. Our greatest love as emergency service volunteers, however, is weather spotting.

Every spring, usually in May, our amateur radio group arranges for a Skywarn training class to be conducted by a staff member from the nearest National Weather Service office. The presentation covers the different types of dangerous storms that are found in our part of the country, the composition of storm cells, features of the various types of clouds such as wall clouds, roll clouds, shelf clouds, towers, and anvils. A lightning bolt is hotter than the surface of the sun, and an F-5 tornado has winds of over 200 miles per hour, and we are warned not to take any chances out in the field. We learned the difference between a funnel and a tornado (a funnel that is making contact with the ground), and where in the cloud structure tornadoes normally occur, and other details necessary to making an accurate report. As our emergency weather coordinator puts it, making sure we're all reading off the same page. And then we wait.

The primary activity of storm spotting is waiting. Eighty-five percent numbing boredom, punctuated by brief episodes of chaos. Most of the time, it seems, the storms dissipate or fade away before they reach us. When the pagers go off, our weather spotters get to their radios immediately to let the net controller know when or if they will be available for duty. Once check-ins have been taken, the communication volunteers receive their assignments. Our favorite assignment is a county road a bit southwest of town. There's a lightly traveled overpass that allows us a good view of the storms as they come toward us across the prairie.

I love the feel of the suddenly cold winds coming out of the front of the storm. Seems like the temperature drops twenty degrees or more within just a few minutes. Lightning bolts flash from tower to tower of a big storm cloud, lighting up the entire western sky, and the thunder starts out as a barely audible but continuous rumble underlying all the other sounds. Heavy rains can make it look like the clouds reach all the way to the ground. We concentrate on the rain-free area, looking for a wall cloud extending from the base of the storm cell. This is where we're most likely to spot a funnel. As the storm develops, all the spotters call in their reports to the amateur radio net control station, and our information is then relayed to the weather service, also by radio. It's the compilation of reports by spotters in different locations that gives the meteorologists a good picture of what's actually happening, compared to what is showing up on their Doppler radar.

As much as we are performing a community service as weather spotters, there is a greater fascination for me as a Skywarn volunteer. The power and beauty of a storm brings me alive in a way that no other experience has ever quite managed. There is a primitive, sensual quality to the wind and rain and hail that energizes me. And, as I stand by the side of the road at night, watching a multi-cell thunderstorm marching across the prairie miles away, I am awed by its might and beauty. As lightning flashes through the clouds, it lights them in layers. Looking closely, I can see the details of the cloud formations. I've spent an hour or more just watching a storm pass by.

I don't believe that my fascination with storms will ever die. They empower me as nothing else can. More, the storms remind me that for the most part power, devastation and fury are in the final analysis impersonal. So much of what I experience in life is beyond my control, just like the prairie storms. Whether I survive is no reflection on me, my abilities or my worth, and I have not been chosen out of all the people in the world as a target. Much of life is an awful lot like a thunderstorm. I face into the wind, glorying in the feeling of the storm's power washing over me. There is beauty in the storm and joy in making it through to the end.

Copyright 1999, by Elizabeth W. Bennefeld.

When Elizabeth W. Bennefeld and her husband Al are not chasing storms with other members of Red River Radio Amateurs, Elizabeth works as a freelance writer and editor, while Al is a computer technician turned programmer. Their household in Fargo, North Dakota, includes two cocker spaniels, Ladd and Rascal, a ham shack, and a basement full of books. Elizabeth's poetry and prose have appeared in literary and other publications since the late 1960s.

E-mail Elizabeth at

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