Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hang Onto Your Parcheesi Boards: Tornadoes Here and There

In my household, we talk about two kinds of severe weather warnings: Mr. Brown warnings and Parcheesi board warnings. Mr. Brown warnings are for severe thunderstorms, a reference to the Dr. Seuss book Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? which says, "Boom, boom, boom, Mr. Brown is a wonder. Boom, boom, boom, Mr. Brown makes thunder." Parcheesi warnings are for tornadoes. These come from something I'm relatively sure my sister made up (although she will correct me if I'm wrong). Right before Hurricane Bob was due to hit New England in the early 1990's, she said, "Hang onto your Parcheesi boards. It's gonna blow."

Last weekend, we had a major family event on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, all of the out of town guests were invited for brunch, and a bunch of them stayed throughout the day. There were 14 people at my house. About midday, we learned that our area was under a tornado watch. This is not such a big deal in Southeast Michigan. It happens pretty frequently, and doesn't usually progress to a tornado warning. Even when it does, however, we don't get too upset. While tornadoes are not unheard of in this neck of the woods, the number of warnings far outstrips the number of actual tornadoes, so we have a plan and a safe room in the basement, but we try to keep things fairly calm. My husband and I discussed the fact that our usual safe room won't hold 14 people, and decided that the room next to it is almost as safe and we would use that if necessary.

A little after 5 PM on Sunday, a Parcheesi warning was issued for our county. We are on the eastern end, so we knew we had some time. I calmly invited our guests to join us in our luxurious basement, bring something to do, and carry down a chair if they preferred not to sit on the floor. At my sister-in-law's request, we brought down a guitar, and for the next hour we all sat around, noses in computers and cell phones, while my mom, my daughter and I passed the guitar around and led the group in various folk songs. A good time was had by all.

When it was over and everyone had posted about it on Facebook, I was somewhat taken aback by the comments we got from friends and family elsewhere. "Was it scary?" "That's disturbing." "How horrible." My sister-in-law praised my calmness, and said she was handling the panic, quietly, for all of us. I explained that I preferred to save my panic for when a tornado actually hits our house.

The bulk of these visiting relations are from Massachusetts, where I grew up. In the 17 years I lived there full time, I can remember no more than three tornado warnings. We would go down to the basement and wait it out, and I remember distinctly one time asking schoolmates what they had done during a warning and them saying things like, "We just hung out and hoped a tornado didn't come." They had no plan at all.

Last night, however, the central and western parts of Massachusetts were slammed by tornadoes, causing major damage in 19 or 20 towns. At least four people died. My family, living as they do in the eastern part of the state, just got a spectacular lightning show.

Meanwhile, in Missouri last week, reports indicate that a lot of people didn't take cover during the Tornado that hit Joplin until they could see the tornado bearing down on them. The sirens go off so often around there, people don't always pay attention anymore.

This is the difficulty of disaster warning systems. You want a system that people will pay attention to and that warns of any disaster that is actually going to hit. But these two goals can be at odds. Any system that catches all the tornadoes that actually hit will also catch a lot of storms that could produce tornadoes but don't. And as long as that's the case, people in areas where those storms are fairly common will not see a tornado warning as being sufficient reason to take cover. Meanwhile, people in areas where such a thing is very unusual will take it seriously, but won't have a plan because they generally don't need one. Locations like ours, in fact, are in some ways ideal. We get enough warnings that we have a plan, but not so many that we don't take it seriously.

You've heard me say many times in this space that we live our lives by
what is likely, not what is possible. We take risks all day long based on the probability that something bad will happen to us, how bad that thing would be, and how disruptive it is to our lives to not take those risks. If a tornado hits near you, it's easy to say, in hindsight, you should have taken cover. It's not as easy to say, for someone else, that taking cover every time the warning goes out is always the absolute right thing to do. It is always the safe thing to do, but "right" depends on how much of a pain it is and how likely the tornado is to actually hit where you are, so everyone will come to his or her own conclusions.

In my household, however, when the siren goes off or the warning comes onto the radio or TV, we'll continue to hold onto our Parcheesis boards. Thanks for asking.


Colleen said...

There is nothing like a singalong to 1) pass the time and 2) keep people calm!

Abraham Fisher said...

Parcheesi boards come from "Time of Wonder," by Robert McCloskey.. when the hurricane hits, blows the door open, and upsets the Parcheesi game.

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