Electric Atmosphere

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When we left off yesterday, the author was sitting on his front porch on an April night in 2011, awaiting the arrival of an EF5 tornado that radar reports, which had been spot-on all that terrible afternoon, assured him was coming. Indeed, it was. The evening was windy, but there was no rain. The flicker of far-off lightning was the first sign of the tornado’s approach. Then, the flicker became more pronounced until it was strobe-like and unceasing, though still away, over the horizon. Next came the rumble. It was the inevitable thunder accompanying the unceasing lightning and an unmistakable sign the thing was getting closer. Distinct bolts of cloud-to-cloud lightning started to become visible low in the sky, and the rumble got louder. The wind rose higher, and it wasn’t long before the entire system was visible in the sky, a funnel-shaped living thing, absolutely wrapped all over in constant lightning bolts from horizon to high overhead. I thought of a jellyfish. I was mesmerized and trusting that I’d be able to duck inside when the crisis arrived and hoping that would be enough. The wind and the rumble continued to build until, after not much time really, it became apparent the funnel was going to pass slightly west of me. I watched it go, the wind and the rumble going with it, until it was over.

I have no doubt if it had been daytime, I’d have been facing a giant funnel-shaped cloud, an iconic EF5 twister unobstructed by rain. Still, I think it was more dramatic the way it happened. I have always heard of the noise associated with these storms, “like a freight train,” and assumed people were describing the noise of the wind, but I wonder now how many of those reports actually were describing the thunder-and-lightning event I observed. It wouldn’t be as obvious in the daytime, or in the rain. It was an awesome sight, in the old sense of that poor bedraggled word.

That particular storm was on the ground from central Alabama into central Georgia, and it killed a local resident as I watched it pass. It was the last and probably the strongest of many strong storms that day. It caused a lot of damage, including a half-mile wide swath of twisted trees that still is visible for miles and miles today. Fortunately, though, it passed mostly through lightly populated areas. It was not the most destructive storm that day, nor the most talked-about, but it was the one I saw.