Monthly Archives: April 2011

Tornadoes on the brain

This past week, tornadoes ripped through Alabama and other sections of the midwest, causing nearly 300 deaths and untold injuries and property damage. We’re just at the beginning of tornado season here in the U.S., and given the recent hurricane and tsunami activity in other regions of the world, it leads to the perception that these storms are increasing in severity and frequency. With climate change being such a hot button issue, it’s nearly impossible to find agreement, but the general consensus seems to be that we just don’t know. With improvements in Doppler radar and a spreading population, reports of the number of events has certainly increased, but whether this indicates real change or simply better data gathering is unclear. As for the severity of the storms, there has not been an increase in the most violent EF4 and EF5 U.S. tornadoes in recent decades.

I grew up just outside of Chicago, which is just northeast of the Mississippi plains area known as “Tornado Alley”. As a child, I remember being very afraid of tornadoes. The twister scenes at the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz” were as frightening to me as the wicked witch or the flying monkeys. My family’s ranch style house lacked a basement, so when there was a warning on the radio or TV, we’d seek shelter near a door threshold away from any windows. At school we would have tornado drills which followed the “duck and cover” protocol of a nuclear attack drill.

The only time I actually saw a tornado first hand was as a teen visiting a friend’s house. A storm came up unexpectedly and the sky turned a sickly greenish color. There was a sudden hailstorm and on the horizon I could see a lighter grey funnel cloud descend from the sky and touch ground. Since then there have been many other warnings, but no sightings.

I still have occasional dreams in which tornadoes tear the roof off a building as I’m waiting out a storm. I can only imagine the psychological effects of those who’ve experienced a tornado first hand. Many have symptoms similar to earthquake survivors, who report long term traumatic stress including a sense of helplessness and of course, nightmares.

For the record, here are a couple of FALSE tornado myths:

• Tornadoes don’t hit areas near rivers, lakes or mountains.
• Tornadoes don’t hit big cities.

The fact is, tornadoes can hit and do hit any time at any place.

And finally, some reminders of how to be prepared for a tornado, courtesy of the Red Cross : Tornado Safety Checklist

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Barack Obama: The Illustrated Man

When I started this illustration, I planned to show President Obama as “The Illustrated Man” from the Ray Bradbury stories, covered with tattoos representing the major events of his term thus far. For now, I’ve limited the focus to the two major environmental catastrophies which occurred this past year, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the nuclear radiation leak in Japan. Both continue to cause untold damage to the human, animal and plant life in ever-widening areas surrounding the disasters and are leading many to reconsider the safety of offshore oil drilling and nuclear energy.
Not surprisingly, most of the damage control by the industries involved seem to be in the area of PR, with assurances that these are freak occurrences that couldn’t happen again. BP has even requested permission to resume offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico less than a year after the explosion of the rig that lead to the largest spill in U.S. history. And nuclear power companies are continuing their push to expand plants here in the U.S. and worldwide.
As of last week, Japan declared the Fukushima crisis a Level 7 event (the maximum) on the international system for rating nuclear accidents Tuesday, putting it on par with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union.

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Author Sarah Vowell at Oak Park’s Unity Temple

The weather was cool and clear at Oak Park’s Unity Temple for yesterday evening’s “Writers at Wright” presentation featuring author and humorist Sarah Vowell. It was the last stop of her media tour in support of her latest nonfiction historical work “Unfamiliar Fishes“.
The presentation itself was free with $10 of every book that was sold there going toward the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. As expected, the turnout was near capacity for the building, which, though not huge, has a main floor and a double balcony on three sides. After a short introduction, Vowell took to the elevated podium and read a couple of short passages from the book and then opened the floor to questions. She confessed to some distraction as she took in the view from the pulpit. Along with being a history buff, she’s also a big fan of noted Chicago architects Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham in addition to Frank Lloyd Wright. She says she’s considering writing a book, or better yet, a musical based on the lives of the builders.
Most audience questions dealt with the current work, which covers the early U.S. involvement in Hawaii and culminates in the year 1898, which Vowell argues may have been the most pivotal year for the nation, when the U.S. officially became a superpower. Under President McKinley and at the urging of Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam and invaded Cuba and the Philippines in that year alone, which Vowell characterizes as an “orgy of imperialism”.
It’s her knack for finding the human interest and humor in what could be a pretty dry subject that gives her books their charm. In both her writing and speaking style, Vowell will at times go off on a tangent to make a story more relatable to modern readers.
Other audience questions involved her interest in history, which Vowell attributes in part to her 1/8 Cherokee ancestry, which was easy to research in her home state of Oklahoma. With her sister, she recently retraced the steps of the Native American “Trail of Tears” to get a better sense of their plight.
When asked what interested her as a child, she admitted that, being from somewhat “redneck” part of the country, the list included The Dallas Cowboys, Charlie’s Angels, country music, Elvis, and Jesus, and noted that she’s “still an Elvis fan.”
At the conclusion of the presentation, Vowell noted how lucky we are to have such architectural treasures in our midst and to appreciate them and contribute to their preservation.
Many thanks to Sarah Vowell and to the organizers of this event including The Book Table, Friends of the Oak Park Public Library and the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation for a fun and informative evening.

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