Tornado Sky

When I was about ten years old, a big storm moved over my grandparents’ house in Crawford, Texas. The sky turned brown, the colors on the whole street shifted eerily, and my ears popped as titanic air masses jostled overhead. I knew from school and from the weatherguy on TV that deep brown was the mark of a tornado sky.

I saw a similar color in Sydney on my first antipodean Christmas Day. But on the arid continent, brown means a bushfire sky, caused by the ash and smoke of the summer burn-offs.

The same hues appeared today over New York City as this thunderstorm rolled in:

This is from Justine’s and my apartment, looking down on Second Avenue from the seventh floor. The camera is facing south, and it’s about six PM.

My favorite moment in a NYC storm is when the streets turn dark, but the sky is still glowing. Especially when the heavens are the crazy brown they were today, shifting the colors of everything and turning the rain-mirrored asphalt the hue of a slow-moving bayou.

It was definitely weird looking. Right as the rain broke, we were headed off to meet our Razorbill editors for dinner, umbrellas in hand. A kid came out of the building in front of us, looked up at the sky, turned to his dad and said, “Why’s that like that?”

I didn’t tell him about the tornado-sky thing. Partly because I would have been lying. Back when I was ten, the tornados didn’t come. One hits Crawford every few decades, but I’ve never seen it happen. And in NYC, of course, storm funnels hardly ever form. But although I’m generally against massive death and destruction and all that, one of these days, you know, it would be really cool to see one live . . .

7 thoughts on “Tornado Sky

  1. I’ve always been a bit storm-phobic, especially after sitting out a SE Missouri tornado-like event of some sort (never found out if it was a full funnel or just a seriously nasty storm) in a very small car holding me and my hubby, sis and her boyfriend. All of whom were way too stoned to be in that sort of traumatic situation (this was back in the day). Our initial condition led us to our near-doom, since we had been unwisely attracted to hit the back roads to “watch the pretty clouds.”

    Yeah, that was lots of fun, being hunched over in a two-door POS with the windows rolled down so they wouldn’t burst, whimpering as the screaming sky tore overhead spreading doom and mayhem across the county. Talk about a buzz kill.

    Of course, that just barely beats out standing on my back porch in North Carolina watching the gates of hell roiling out of the back forty so that I would know when to run, only to struck immobile with terror as wisps of cloud-stuff began twining and rotating down from the seething underbelly in a familiar pattern more or less *in my back yard* (!), not 100 feet from where I was standing. All I could do was stare at it and mutter “nonononono..” as it began to form up.

    Thankfully, like a heavy flywheel with a bad starter, it never quite managed to crank over, lifted back up and came down 10 miles up the road to spank the crape myrtles a the nearby town, pausing only to scare a couple of gas station clerks silly (as always, the goofiest people are always interviewed on the news after these things and they were no exception, relating to one and all how they heard the noise and “hauled buggy” to the back cooler of the store. Yeah buddy.)

  2. My closest experience was when I was in high school in Georgia. The last bell had just rung and, as my last class was ten feet from an exit, I was out the door rather quickly. I turned around and noticed one of the teachers pulling the doors shut behind me – I thought it strange but still made my way to the bus. I no sooner got on the bus when it started rocking side-to-side as a tornado touched down across the street (maybe 100 yards from where I was at the time). It managed to rip some A/C units from the top of the school and tore a path through the trees before breaking up.

    Looking back I know how incredibly lucky I am, but at the time it was rather cool. Not nearly as scary as waking up in the middle of the night because the air-raid sirens have started wailing (which happens all too frequently in Georgia).

  3. When I was in 9th grade, we had a whopping forest fire in the Angeles Crest. I woke up to an orange-brown sky. This was back in the 70s, when brown skies were commonplace in the San Gabriel Valley (pre catalytic converters!), but this sky seemed to redefine hell. The rain of ashes didn’t help much.

    Apocalyptic, I thought at the time, but then I was a pretty goth kid — or would have been, had goth been around back then.

    Great pic.

  4. Thanks for all your high-quality reminiscences. There’s something about the whole sky changing that’s very . . . intense. (That’s why I’m okay with Uglies‘ first line being about the color of the sky, even though I was contradicting James Elroy’s law: “Never start with the weather.”)

    Ted’s safety article raises an interesting question: Is it perhaps only safer to flee the tornado if you’re one of relatively few people who believe it’s safer? If everyone’s fleeing, the roads get clogged, and you’re all sitting ducks. At which point it’s safer to stay at home.

    There’s a game theory essay in there somewhere.

  5. Great post, and fascinating comments! Where i’m from in Kansas, we talk about the sky turning green before a tornado hits. I’ve never heard anyone describe the color change as brown. That’s really interesting to me… I wonder if the colors are different in different places.

    I didn’t see anything in that article about the safeness of going out on your porch to look for the tornado… that’s what everyone does when the sirens go off back home. 😉

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