A week ago, a large tornado outbreak struck the Midwest. In Indiana alone, 28 tornadoes caused considerable damage. Fortunately, the outbreak was well-forecast, and the human toll was much lower than for other similar events. I’m not going to review the synoptic conditions here, because this isn’t about the weather, per se, but how I handled it.
Map of central Indiana tornado tracks. Produced by the National Weather Service in Indianapolis.
My friends Kevin and Colleen were visiting. Kevin is also a storm chaser, so shortly after they arrived he and I were on the couch with our laptops, watching a line approach us from the west. The first indications that the forecast would verify were the startling images from Washington, Illinois. The early pictures of the damage left no doubt that the environment would support violent tornadoes.
By early afternoon, it was time for my daughter to take her nap. My wife took her upstairs and the adults sat downstairs and socialized. And watched radar. As the line approached, several areas of concern presented themselves. Kevin and I considered a trip north to Fowler, but decided that with the speed the line was moving, we’d have a hard time intercepting it. The linear nature of the storms made visibility and escape real concerns as well. Around that time, I noticed another area of rotation around Interstate 74 near the Illinois/Indiana line. I remarked that it was heading for us, so that was another good reason not to go after something else.
As the 3:00 hour approached, it was evident that the rotation really was heading toward us, and I suggested that we should put our shoes on in anticipation of seeking shelter in the basement. When the rotation crossed into Tippecanoe County, I determined that it would pass safely south of us, but I was concerned about our friends on the south side of Lafayette. I let them know to get to their basement immediately. Around that time, Kevin went to stand on the front porch.
The rain began, and the wind picked up. At approximately 2:52 PM, the wind speed picked up dramatically. I estimated the gusts to be 80 miles per hour. Kevin came running in from the porch and said we needed to get to the basement right away. My wife was already on her way upstairs to grab my still-sleeping daughter. A few seconds later, we were all downstairs. Kevin had seen a sudden shift in wind direction, and the blowing leaves lifting up made him wonder if we had just been tornadoed. I began to wonder if I had made an error in judgment.
After a couple of minutes, we went back upstairs. The power had gone out before we went to the basement and it remained off (it would be about 39 hours before power was restored to my house). I went outside to survey the damage and was pleasantly surprised to see none. Four and a half miles to the south, it was a different story. NWS damage surveys would show that an EF-3 tornado had carved a 29-mile path across three counties, causing major damage to two area manufacturing facilities.
After an event like this, it’s natural (and appropriate) to look back and see what went right and wrong. Before the storms arrived, we had packed a diaper bag and brought it downstairs. We constantly monitored the weather conditions. I correctly judged that we were not threatened by the tornado. What I did wrong was I focused solely on the tornado threat. With the line moving at 70 mph, the wind threat was considerable. Although it didn’t cause any damage at our house, an 80 mph wind gust is not something to take lightly. My timing was okay, but in retrospect, I’d rather have pulled the trigger a minute sooner to make our trip to the basement more controlled. Even though we were well-prepared, the execution was still uncomfortably rushed. The balance between minimal disruption and safety is sometimes hard to make.
KIND radial velocity image from 1952Z on November 17. The area of rotation (circled) is moving northeast. The X roughly approximates the location of my house.