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