Thursday, November 12, 2015

Explaining tornadoes to a preschooler

I've had a bit of a nervous evening tonight, thanks to one of Iowa's signature weather events.  I knew there was going to be rain today, but was unprepared for what to do when my phone unexpectedly buzzed with a county emergency alert as I drove to pick Harriet up from school.  I looked down and saw a tornado warning and a small piece of my brain flipped out: "What am I supposed to do if I'm in a car?" "Should I try to pick Harriet up from school or not?" "What happens if I can't pick her up on time?" 

At the next light, as the rain suddenly picked up and began to pound furiously against my windshield, I scrabbled to search on my phone and was rewarded with the official word from NOAA: "There is no safe option when caught in a tornado in a car, just slightly less-dangerous ones."  I scanned channels on the radio and found that while most were doing business as usual, the local country music station had switched over to nothing but live storm reporting.  I cranked the volume to be able to hear it over the rain and inched forward into the pitch black of dark storm and early nightfall, barely able to see the cars packed all around me, trying to figure out whether I was doing the right thing or the wrong thing.

Since moving to Iowa two years ago, I've had two previous encounters with tornado alerts. The first time, the sirens went off while all three of us were at home.  I was actually on a Skype call with colleagues back in Boston at the time, working on a paper, and I think that they were more freaked out than I as we relocated down into the basement for the duration.  The second time, I was in the air, returning from Boston along with Harriet and Ananya, and the plane made three attempts to land in heavy, free-falling turbulence before giving up and depositing us in Peoria, Illinois.  That was a very, very long day.

Today, I splashed through flooding streets and eventually found a big hand-written sign on the school door telling parents to come find after-school down in the basement.  Parents, children, and teachers were all packed in together, and the slightly nervous buzz amongst the adults helped stimulate the children to a high degree of frantic energy, not really understanding why today was different but knowing that it was so.  

After 20 minutes or so, the storms had passed and we began to disperse, but the time had left its imprint on our evening, especially since Harriet wanted to dawdle and hang out at the school and I was very eager to get out of the weather and home, not knowing how long the gap might last.  All the way home, Harriet and I talked about thunderstorms and tornadoes, and I tried to tread a careful line between ensuring that Harriet understood that tornado watches are serious business but also not making her frightened.  Partway there, she had an excellent inspiration and asked me to find a song that would make tornadoes and thunderstorms go away, and I doggerelled up the following:
Tornado, tornado, don't come around our house!
Tornado, tornado, just go away you louse!
Real peace of mind for Harriet, though, didn't come until we were sitting down at the dinner table and got the internet involved.  First, we went searching for other tornado songs, finding some excellent broken-heart-country kinda stuff and a couple of wacky amateur things that Harriet liked even better. As she got into it and began to relax, I offered to show her how we were kept safe from tornadoes, and so we ended up looking at the NOAA radar:
Tonight's line of thunderstorms, observed from home after they passed us by.
The colors help, that's for certain, and I think she really got it, since she started telling me things like "We want to be in the blue and green, not the red."  I showed pictures of doppler radar stations like the one in Davenport and talked about how the people there had really good computers and were always watching to make sure they knew when tornadoes might appear, that could tell us if trouble was coming 15 minutes ahead of time, and that my phone would buzz and let us know if we needed to go to the basement.  We navigated all around the region, looking at different radars (Harriet expressed much sympathy for Chicago, which was going to get hit next), and looked at satellite images from space as well as pictures of weather satellites.

And then Harriet asked to look at the weather radar for Madagascar, which she's been into lately, and we found there wasn't one, or at least not one whose images are posted online.  That made me really think about the infrastructure involved in having weather safety systems like we have, and the powerful role of government and civil society, not just in keeping me physically safe, but also in providing me with peace of mind, enough even to pass it honestly to my three year old daughter.  I did not have to tell any comforting lies tonight, or hope and pray for safety: I know down deep in my heart that men and women are doing simple professional work to establish this remarkable network of protection across the land.  My eyes teared up a little, as they always do when I contemplate the non-glamourous wonders of civic society, and I know why I believe in the importance of good government.
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