The sirens start up with a low moan that you can feel in your belly before you hear it. They go off once a month around noon, just as a test, and if you’re outside for recess, it’s loud enough that you might cover your ears.
Other times at school they have a tornado drill, which isn’t as much fun as a fire drill because you don’t get to go outside. Instead you walk in quiet lines out to the hall and sit cross-legged with your knees up against the lockers. You stare up-close at your sneakers and listen to the teachers’ shoes click click click on the hard tile floor behind you. The most important thing about a tornado drill is to cover your head with your arms. “Keep your head down,” the teachers say. “Shhh. Just a little longer.”
At home, you know it’s going to be a tornado night if Mom and Dad keep glancing at the weather radar on TV. You watch the names of Tornado Warning counties stream across the screen above the forecaster’s head, and look out the windows to see if the sky is turning greenish. When the sirens start their baleful whine, your parents gather you up to sit in the basement bathroom where there are no windows.
You are comforted by probability: There’s only a small chance a funnel cloud will form. Even if one forms, there’s only a small chance it becomes a tornado and touches down. Even if a tornado touches down, there’s only a small chance its path will come through here. It could go through the next town over, or even the next street. There are many other streets. And even if it comes through here, you might not die.
Here in the Inland Northwest we don’t worry about tornadoes, but the stories that came out after the devastation in Moore, Okla., are all too familiar to anyone who grew up in tornado country. As the storm tore off the roofs, children huddled beneath the sinks in elementary school bathrooms. They held books to protect their heads. “You’re OK, you’re OK!” a teacher yelled at Briarwood Elementary as students shrieked. Cinder blocks flew and walls fell around them. “It’s almost over,” teachers said.
More than a thousand buildings were entirely destroyed as the tornado cut a wide path through the Oklahoma City suburbs. On the National Weather Service’s tornado intensity scale, it earned the highest rating. In some places whole neighborhoods were reduced to rubble. In other places the satellite images show the unlucky path of destroyed houses — one neighbor’s house a pile of debris, another neighbor’s home untouched.
At Plaza Towers Elementary, where seven third-graders died, teachers knelt over students to protect them as they were buried in debris. After it was over, they said: “Someone will come for us.”
Eventually the sirens end, and you emerge. Most of the time everything is frozen exactly as you left it — trees intact, windows intact, dinner half-made in the kitchen. You are comforted by probability until you are the unlucky one in a million, and then you trust that help will come.