MAXWELL:  Tornadoes’ fury unleashes worst fears

3/15/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



As a Floridian, I pride myself in being meteorologically and environmentally tough. After all, our summers turn existence into a grill, wildfires blacken thousands of acres annually, hurricanes scare the hell out of insurance underwriters, lightning crisscrosses the horizon like July fireworks and insects bite viciously enough to make the Old Testament’s Job cry uncle.

On Friday night, however, even this native Floridian cowered like a baby in the corner of his hotel room.

The cause? Tornadoes.

Yes, I have been through several hurricanes and even rode out one of them for a newspaper story. I have even flown into the eye of a storm for an article. But trust me: Few natural forces are more frightening than a tornado. I thought that I would die.

I was at the University of Alabama for a two-day journalism symposium, and we participants were staying in the well-appointed Four Points Sheraton Hotel on campus. Thursday night brought fierce storms. Thunder rolled like the sound of bass drums, and lightning filled my room with angry light. I had a hard time falling asleep.

On Friday morning, the skies were gray, and the air carried an eeriness. Showers fell intermittently.

Shortly after our final workshop on Friday afternoon, I went outside and looked toward Birmingham. Storms were coming. My Florida nose told me so. I went into the bar and had a couple of beers with a former St. Petersburg Times colleague. After we parted, I went to my room and listened to the Weather Channel. Sure enough, Texas, where one woman already had been killed, was experiencing tornadoes and thunderstorms. These systems were moving northeast toward Alabama.

I kept a dinner date with Steve Jackson, a friend at Stillman College, even though bad weather was moving in. We figured we had a couple of hours left before anything happened. While we ate in a restaurant near campus, a local TV announcer said that those who did not need to be out should find shelter _ immediately. The images on the screen were bad.

After leaving the restaurant, we went to a liquor store for a bottle of wine. As we were about to leave the store, a gust of wind slammed against the building. I opened the door, and wind threw it against the outside wall, damaging the hinges. Outside, rain fell in torrents, winds howled and lights blinked. The streets were quickly flooding as we drove back to my hotel.

“Where’s my hotel?” I asked as the car approached the place where I thought it should be.

“Over there,” Steve said. “The power is out.”

I ran into the lobby, where a manager, shining a flashlight, told guests to go immediately to the ballroom, the safest area in the building. We could not go to our rooms. I suspected we would be in the shelter for a few hours at least, so I fretted over how I would uncork my Shiraz Cabernet. Hey, a brother has his priorities. More than 50 people, mostly teenagers in town for various events, milled near a TV.

At 7:09 p.m., a staffer entered and announced that the tornado watch had been extended to 8, and we would have to remain in the ballroom. A concerted groan went up.

Two drunks, one claiming to be the son of the Sheraton Hotel chain founder, entreated us to enjoy our stay. He would have been funny had he not been sloshed. Instinct told me to ask him if he could open a bottle of wine. He had a corkscrew in his overnight case, wouldn’t you know. Oh happy days. He and his buddy and I finished off my bottle.

We heard a deafening roar a short time later, and the ballroom went silent.

A small child screamed out: “Mommy, are we going to die?”

I could have been that child, a crybaby. I was scared, too. No hurricane has ever scared me as much. I had been near tornadoes before in Illinois and Wisconsin. Then, I was young and felt invincible.

Not anymore. I, along with my fellow humans, am no more immortal than the strength of the shelter I find myself squatting in when nature unleashes its terrible wrath. Mercifully, I fell asleep on the floor.

Shortly past midnight, an employee woke me and told me that I could go to my room. Using a flashlight, she led about 20 of us through a long corridor, up a stairwell and onto our various floors.

We still had no power, and I fell asleep immediately. The next morning, I learned that the storm had killed three in Texas and a woman in Tuscaloosa not far from my hotel. She was killed by a wind-blown billboard. This morning, I drove from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham International Airport. Passing the spot where the woman was killed, I felt lucky.