His & Hers: The thrill and apathy of tornadoes

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Husband-and-wife journalists Bob Miller and Callie Clark Miller use this space to offer their views on everyday issues.

He said

My handy dandy Southeast Missourian text alert chimed last Sunday afternoon, notifying me that there had been a tornado warning issued in Bollinger County.

I don't live in Bollinger County, but I figure anything hitting Bollinger County now will hit Cape Girardeau County soon enough.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, I heard the sirens wail near my home in Jackson. Then another text message, and I turned on the weather report from the fine meteorologists on KFVS12.

I have a freakish fascination with tornadoes. When tornado shows appear on Discovery or The Weather Channel, I'm hooked. I'd love to be one of those storm chasers who fishtails around old gravel roads, hoping to spot and photograph nature in one of its most violent states.

Callie and I have a long history of dealing with tornadoes. When she was just starting out in journalism at the newspaper in Poplar Bluff, Mo., one of her first stories was of a tornado in Ellsinore, Mo. She arrived after the twister tore through. It was a tough thing for her to see.

A few years later, she and I had been dating a while. Callie had just had surgery and was staying with me to recuperate. That night, in 2003, Jackson was hit by a tornado.

Just before the storm hit, a pizza delivery guy delivered a pizza. We couldn't believe he was out in that kind of weather -- when we had ordered it, the weather was not nearly as ominous.

Our house was spared by the tornado, but we got a call from our editor at the time that other homes had been hit.

Callie was barely able to walk, but she wouldn't miss the story. Callie, my brother and I piled into the car and drove through town in vicious rain and hail. It was as black as a movie theater in our small town, and it felt like a film as we tried to maneuver around power lines, snapped trees and crushed houses and cars. The headlights cast eerie spotlights into yards where people stood in the rain trying to make sense of what had just happened.

We ended up picking up a family, piling more children and one adult into the vehicle and transporting them to a relative's house. They were soaked.

Come daylight, we went back out to gather stories. The scenes were horrific. The tornado hit the house directly across the street from where my oldest son Drew lives. The twister damaged the building that I worked in at the time. It was definitely a close call. When I was a teenager, a tornado wiped out a factory that was less than a half-mile from our house. My brother and mother were at home alone at the time. Another close call.

Still, I'm more awed than scared by tornadoes. I start pacing around the house with frequent trips to the front door to study the clouds. I like the rush and the excitement of it, the anticipation of hearing on the news that a tornado has been spotted. Yes, I'm a freak. Callie, meanwhile, amid the sirens and the warnings, will continue knitting or reading a book. I don't know how she does it.

SHE SAID

I don't knit, during a tornado or otherwise. But I definitely don't get as fussed over them as Bob. As soon as the "turn to Channel 11" notice comes on the TV, he wants to usher us all into the basement. Better safe than sorry, true, but on more than one occasion Bob and Drew have taken shelter in the basement while I sat upstairs.

I've covered five tornados, from a F3 to a F5, in my nine years as a journalist. The carnage they're capable of should probably have given me a good dose of paranoia by now. It hasn't. I don't share Bob's fascination -- I will not sit through the movie "Twister," for example, and every time Bob makes a "we've got cows" reference, I ignore him. But I sat through my first tornado when I was barely able to walk, and I can't recall the number of times I was ushered into my grandparents' cellar during a storm (my grandmother had strong feelings about talking on the phone during a storm; she once called my mom during a dandy to make sure Mom wasn't on the phone because it was storming.)

I called my brother, who lives in Cape Girardeau, during Sunday's storm to relive that family moment. Then I went back to reading my book while Bob paced around the living room and pondered taking cover in the basement.

Callie Clark Miller is the Southeast Missourian's special publications managing editor. Bob Miller is editor of the Southeast Missourian. Reach them at cmiller@semissourian.com and bmiller@semissourian.com.

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