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A Twisted Tale

I will always try to be the first to raise my hand and admit when I am wrong. As you may recall if you are a long-time reader, I write my posts in a Word doc (as opposed to “live” on the webpage). It is a single 466-page document and I simply open it, go to the end, and pick up with the new post. And this morning, the first thing my eyes settled upon as I prepared to write was the closing of my last post in which I comment that the grip of the virus is waning. Oops. It seems, based upon much of what I’ve read in the news, that the numbers are now actually rising again. Colder weather, more people in closer contact with each other, many folks tired of it all shedding their masks – I suppose I should have expected it. None the less, a huge percentage of people are vaccinated and boostered so I would hope that severe cases, and fatalities, will be greatly reduced through this,

Having said that, now I will move to my latest news. Saturday morning I read a short clip that our area could experience severe weather in the late afternoon, but that it would short-lived – an hour or so – mostly consisting a heavy rain and wind, possibly hail. Oh, and a chance of tornados. Yep – tornados. This is Rhode Island, while we may get a rare tornado here or there every 30 years, it is basically a non-threat here. So I listened, but I did not plan for anything other than a line of thunderstorms, such as we regularly see here in New England. Well, I was wrong.

I watched the line of storms moving NNE across New York and into Connecticut, and it was truly an impressive line: strong, well-formed, moving with intent (around 50MPH), and stretching easily over 100-miles long. I was really watching to better understand my plans over the next couple of hours though, not because of any concern over severe weather. It was Saturday afternoon and that is when I prepare to take the grandkids home, usually around 6:30, so I was really just wondering how the drive would be impacted by the storms.

Suddenly the football game I was lazily watching on TV switched to a live weather report from the local news station. The irony here is deep and layered. First off, I rarely watch TV on Saturday afternoons – the TV usually belongs to one of my grandsons for playing video games or just watching videos. Secondly, in the rare moment I actually have the TV, I am almost always up in the cable channels such as History, TLC, Discovery, SyFy, etc. – I almost never watch college football. But this time I happened to have the TV and tuned to one of the big college games – on a local channel. And all those rare moments came together on this Saturday afternoon, allowing me to see the breaking live weather report.

The obviously flustered and adrenaline-charged meteorologist was standing in front of his radar screen and, amazingly enough, was telling us that the doppler radar was showing two areas of rotation, indicating tornadic activity. He was quick to point out that there were no reports of tornados on the ground, but there was upper-level rotation indicating the possibility. And then it got wild: dark, crazy winds, and heavy sideways rain. But I will add that it was nothing more than something I’ve seen here throughout my life – wild but not out of the ordinary.

The lights flickered once, then twice, went out completely and then came back. I turned off the TV to be safe as power surges like this can be devastating to electronics. Then my wife gasped, she had just received a text from our daughter that her kitchen door had violently blown open and a window had blown out. She went on to state that the sound of storm, which she described as a freight train, was so loud that she couldn’t hear anything inside or out. What was even more frightening was that my son-in-law was working so she was home alone with their 3-month-old baby. She then also reported she had no power but that they were both absolutely fine.

The next thing we heard was that my sister-in-law, who lives a couple of hundred feet up and across the street from my daughter had a huge tree down against their back door and they could not get out that door. Sirens were audible in most every direction and it became chillingly clear that this was no ordinary storm!

But even as I was digesting it all, the rain and wind began to lessen as the fast-moving line raced on to the north and east. My daughter reiterated that she and the baby were fine and that her husband was on his way and was only ten minutes away so I didn’t head over to her house. I was torn between going to her but leaving my wife and grandkids here alone; happily, her assertion that she was safe and that all was well made the choice easy. Shortly after her husband texted me that he was home and had patched the blown-out window and everything was fine, except for no power, but he had the generator running.

The rest of the day was uneventful: I took the kids home without issue and when I got back, I hopped on my PC and learned that there were a number of reports of severe wind damage as well as thousands of people without power (my daughter included). There were lots of speculation about tornadic touchdown in the state – up in the NW and also in our town, but no confirmation. To confirm a tornado the National Weather Service sends out teams to assess the physical damage. They announced that they would be doing this tomorrow – on Sunday.

Sunday was my grandson’s birthday party so that consumed my whole day and I did not get the chance to do much more than drive by her house where I saw a few branches down and not much else. But the news of the day, which came out in that evening, was that the NWS had confirmed that it was a tornado that had set down in our town (along with two others, one in the NW and one in the SW part of the state). Their assessment was based upon the “hook” in the radar data along with physical evidence witnessed in the area. Yesterday, I went over to my daughter’s with my chainsaw to cut the branches up and move them to the back and that is when I got to really see that evidence.

Apparently, the tornado touched down immediately southwest of her house and went over her house, crossed the main road, and continued another mile or so before dissipating. The tornado was determined to be 150 yards wide and traveled 1.5 miles in total; it was classified as an EF0. Incredible!

I spoke with one of her neighbors who had been interviewed by the NWS engineer and meteorologist team that had come out to inspect the damage. He has a huge eastern white pine in his yard that had suffered extensive damage. There were a lot of trees that had severe damage, even total losses, but while they all told a tale, none more than this tree.

The pine is easily 60-70’ tall and has massive limbs, many of which are far more than a foot in diameter. The damage was amazing; several massive limbs were bent and wrapped around the tree, apparently from the direction of the winds during the tornado’s passage. But wait – there’s more! These same branches were split and twisted like a helix, much like a strand of DNA or perhaps a better analogy, much like those Chinese finger-cuffs many of us played with as kids. And that twisting and spiraling of these massive branches are definitive proof of tornadic winds to the scientists – the only natural force capable of inflicting that type of damage.

Of course, there were other signs: maples and oaks literally sheared off at the same height, tree after tree in a visible path. In fact as I was cutting and cleaning in my daughter’s yard I came across a 40-50’ maple that ha been sheared both horizontally at a specific height, but also seemingly vertically as it was torn apart down the trunk by the rotational winds.

The damage was amazing in just the two or three yards I looked at, and I am told it is equally as bad along the entire path. A couple of houses and sheds/garages suffered damage but thankfully no injuries at all!

One of the more fascinating tidbits I heard from my daughter’s neighbor was that many of the folks experienced an ear pop as the event unfolded. Tornados have notoriously low barometric pressure within and in immediate proximity and many people report that their ears popped as the tornado passed by. The other is the classic freight train description of the noise a tornado makes. It can be nearly deafening and everyone I spoke to used that exact description – a sound so loud that it consumed everything – no one heard trees snapping or falling or anything else except for the tornadic roar.

I just wrote a post in which I briefly talked about climate change; here is yet another scrap of evidence perhaps. Rhode Island has a weak history of tornadic activity; there were a couple recorded in the 1800’s and no more until 1972 where a weak one was noted. But between 1985 and now there have been 12 tornados recorded. To me, that is demonstrable (albeit notional) evidence that something is different – our weather patterns have changed. Clearly. Whether (pun intended) it will persist is up to Mother Nature and time.

Enough for now – I need to load my chainsaw, wheelbarrow, and chipper into my truck and head back for more tornado clean up. Stay well dear reader!

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