Riders On the Storm...aka Crying For My Mom to Save Me in Tornado Alley

{Date of visit: May 26-29, 2013}

I'm not going to lie, we were eager to get out of Missouri. Folks like us...you know, the ones from Northern California who say an earthquake (which comes with absolutely no warning) is better than any other kind of natural catastrophe. We are terrified of storms involving wind--like hurricanes and tornadoes but brush off shark attacks and undertow warnings (mainly because we don't actually get in the water...do you know how cold the Pacific Ocean is?!?)  So what did we do when we found ourselves in St. Louis, Missouri with no really good option to get out of Tornado Alley? Why, we planned our escape by driving straight up the corridor...*Highway 29! Face your fear and do it anyway (or some such nonsense).

Tornado Alley from May 19-25 which includes the massive one that devastated Moore, Oklahoma. (source)
Highway 29 straddles the borders of Kansas and Missouri and then Nebraska and Iowa before entering South Dakota. You can see  on the maps here that 29 runs right through the pink and red areas, which for most people would be a similar warning as when the Amityville house told it's residents to "Get Out".  But, as you can see by the time we left St. Louis we were already screwed and surrounded by tornado watches, warnings and the real deal.

Tornado Alley from May 26-June 1, 2013. (source)
Neither of us are from the Midwest...and neither of us has spent any significant amount of time there. I was an Air Force brat but my dad's career kept us mainly on either the East or West Coasts (and Alaska). I've been in severe thunderstorms in the southern states and even a hurricane at the age of 5 or 6 when we lived in Homestead AFB near Miami. Clark is pretty much a Northern California guy who has not only felt earthquakes but was in San Francisco during the big one (Loma Prieta 1989) that collapsed the Bay Bridge. But tornadoes are a very different beast.

On May 28 we found ourselves driving up I29 where Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri meet when the sky turned an eerie grey. It was almost like the lights were turned off. We found a small campground in Rock Port, Missouri and pulled over.

The owner's of Rock Port River's Edge Campground were very welcoming and glad we were getting off the road since a tornado warning had been issued for the area. They had bought the campground 7 years earlier when they retired hoping to make a supplemental income however, the property had been flooded by the Army Corp of Engineers that same year and had sat under water ever since (supposedly). I haven't read anything about that flood but I know that there was an epic flood in 2011 that buried the area (as well as Omaha and areas in South Dakota) under water causing massive devastation to homes and crops.

Regardless, when we rolled into River's Edge we were informed that {at that time} they only had a few spots with electricity as they were still in the process of rewiring and clearing out debris. Being one of only 3 RV's in the park we had our choice of about 6 sites, all pull-through and all level. But we were also warned that the bathhouse...which was the only solid building in the area...was still inaccessible since it was full of mud and silt. Normally, this is not an issue, especially for an overnight stop. However, with the active tornado warnings and the sky getting darker by the minute it was a little ummm, what's the word?...terrifying. We literally had no where to go should a twister touch down.

Note that "technically" during a tornado warning one is supposed to seek shelter...preferably in a brick building or otherwise suitable wind proof shelter. RV's, no matter how heavy, do not qualify.

We didn't bother to unhook the Jeep but did plug into the power and water so we could get some drinking water into the tank 'just in case' something happened nearby to close the highway.

And then all hell broke loose.

First it got eerily quiet and the breeze died. The birds stopped singing (or perhaps they had left the area). It wasn't just that the air was still...it felt heavy and as the clouds turned a greenish black they also seemed to push down on top of us. One of my most vivid memories as a kid was when my dad took me outside of the evacuation shelter we were in during the eye of the hurricane in Florida to buy me an ice cream sandwich out of the vending machine...although I was too little to understand what was going on the air had the same kind of quality.Oppressive. Airless even, like a vacuum.

Within seconds we were pummeled by ping pong sized hail. Lightening flashed 360 degrees around us and the thunder cracked so loud that it might have changed my heartbeat. It was incredibly terrifying. Our 32 foot RV never felt so small until it's thin, fiberglass roof became the only thing between us and that storm. Hail is loud when it hits a roof...but it's deafening when it hits the roof of an RV.

This is actually video of a lightening storm (with small hail) that hit us in the Black Hills of South Dakota but it will give you an idea of how loud it gets in the RV and what 360 degree lightening looks like.
We had to scream at each other to communicate, which only intensified the situation. We had the radio tuned into a local station to listen for tornado reports while the hail beat down on us. I could picture the windshield imploding and us either dying or having to end our travels. I felt sad for my mom who would have to deal with my funeral. And then I started to cry. Call me a wuss, I just couldn't help it.

We had our "bailout bags" sitting on the couch. The cats were in there kennel and Cleo (the dog) had her harness and leash on. I don't know where we thought we were going to go but I suppose if the roof got ripped off we felt better knowing we had our snake bite kit, bug spray, spare socks and a flashlight at the ready. 

It felt like hours, but was most likely just a few minutes, when the hail stopped. The sun peeked out just a little bit and although the warning was still in effect it was clear we were out of immediate danger. We ventured outside and were greeted by the owners of the park (they also lived in an RV) who came over to make sure we were okay.

Seconds into the storm and the area flooded.
We were on "high ground" and the only road out was submerged.
We were able to pull forward onto another road (not actually a site) and get out of the standing water. The owners helped us run electrical to the little cabin...and then the sun peeked through.
A welcome sight.
I imagine there are some pretty amazing things to do and see in the Midwest...after all, a lot of people live there despite having to rebuild over and over again. Maybe one day we will venture back through the area...perhaps in early spring or late fall in an attempt to avoid the heaviest of tornado activity. But we will need a little more time to let the memory of that day fade away (which face it, is happening faster and faster as we get older). We may even travel through part of Oklahoma this March (2014). Nothing like living on the edge. 


*Please forgive my use of the term 'highway'...I have no idea what the proper terminology is anymore for "big roads with multiple lanes for vehicles to travel on"...Interstates, Freeways, Routes, Highways, "I" (fill in the number), Turnpikes, Park Ways, Thoroughfares, Toll Roads or Belt Ways?

Comments

  1. Holy cow! Oregonians here, and we sure feel your terror - have been to Texas during the tornado season (May, it was) & vowed I'd never go back...at least not during the worst season for those storms. (Hub's Dad lives in Austin, so the following visit was in Jan. & it snowed!) Yes, give us an earthquake any day ~ enjoying your posts ~ Namaste ~ Heather & Bryant from Oregon

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    1. Haha, yes, I felt the same way about earthquakes but now...after the series of quakes this past month (and being so far removed for the past 1.5 years) I'm not sure I would welcome them now. =) We are currently in Arkansas and want to stop in Oklahoma City as we travel west. But here we are again...yesterday we were under a tornado watch the entire day (until midnight). I don't know if my nerves can handle another close encounter!!

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