Monday, May 21, 2012

COLUMN: Lightning

I like storms.  But that's the funny thing about verbs -- once you get used to their present, they go all past tense on you in a hurry. It turns out storms are harder to love once you're a homeowner.

Every since I was a little kid, I've been fascinated by weather. When I would get asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my common answer shifted like the wind between weatherman and DJ. What can I say, rock and roll won out -- especially when I found out that weather forecasting wasn't so much magic as it was interpreting math & science - yuck.

Still, I've always been one of those idiots who runs outside to look at a storm rather than hides in the basement from it. I pretend to have good pop culture sensibilities, but my true friends all know that my REAL favorite TV show is "Storm Chasers" and my REAL favorite movie is "Twister." Mother Nature can occasionally be destructive, ruthless, powerful, and awesome -- and I want a front row seat.

Part of it stems from my upbringing. I grew up in one of those earth-sheltered homes that was all the rage in the 80's.  Only one wall in the house was exposed to the outside world -- the other 3, as well as the roof, were protected by solid earth. Cave sweet cave. The house was designed for energy efficiency, but a nice side effect is that it's earthen casing makes it virtually storm-proof.  We knew a family that lived in a similar house who casually woke up to find that an F3 tornado had passed over their house in the middle of the night and they slept through it. This kind of protection leads to a misleading feeling of invincibility when it comes to storms.

I need to remind myself that my CURRENT house sits ABOVE the ground.

A couple weeks ago, my friend Linn was over -- and absolutely NOT because we were watching "Vampire Diaries" because we are both far too old and wise to get hooked on a TV show clearly designed for teenagers. So just picture us doing something else -- sipping tea or what-have-you. Well, after the show, err, TEA got done, we flipped over to catch "Parks & Rec" -- but no dice.

Instead, I was staring at a clearly excited Greg Dutra -- my favorite LMWKLLFS (Local Meteorologist Who Kinda Looks Like Fred Savage.)  And Greg had just hit Stage 3 on the intensity scale. Some people use fancy radars or Fujita scales to measure storm power. After watching years of local storm coverage, I've created my own sure-fire measurement system that I call the Swails-Kastor Scale of Potential Awesomeness:

Stage 1 - If a meterologist breaks into programming yet is seen with a tight collar and carefully ironed tie, there is NOTHING to worry about. Perhaps a nice drizzle.

Stage 2 - If the tie is loosened or the collar relaxed, we could be in for trouble. Watch for hail and wind damage.

Stage 3 - If the tie is off or the collar unbuttoned, seek shelter ASAP because the weather guys are getting WAY too excited. Here's where you hear phrases like, "We're seeing good rotation," as if any rotation is "good."

Stage 4 - If the jacket AND tie are off? You might not make it through the night.

When I was a kid, it seemed like the local weather staff's most accurate form of prediction was to stick their head out a window and look for flying cows. These days, every station has their own MegaSuperDopplerAction 3000, where skilled professionals can now look at an array of impressive yet incomprehensible flashing blips and somehow ascertain that a Mr. Ronald Smith of 1332 West 13th Street is 18.5 seconds away from a one-way ticket to Oz.

And that's what we were seeing that night. Instead of "Parks and Rec," it was a storm cell, complete with tornadoes and wind and hail and ominous flashing blips. I wasn't impressed. It was at least 50 miles away and things still looked good outside. "Feh," I said. "I'll believe it when it shows up."

My friend Linn, on the other hand, is a weather worrier -- and all it took was ONE announcement that it was headed our way for her to start putting her shoes on and me, in turn, to start calling her a wuss. She split for home and I was left with nothing to do but watch the endless weather coverage on TV.

Eventually the excitement ebbed. The storm was reaching Rock Island, but the warnings were cancelled and TV went back to regular programming. I logged onto Facebook to see all my friends typing an assortment of clever variations of either "I like storms" or "I hate storms." I chimed in with "The Dutra just rocked this storm coverage like a boss." Those would be the last words I would ever type on my laptop.


There aren't enough all caps in the world to express how loud it was. All I knew was that several things happened in those .005 seconds:

Sparks flew out of my laptop. It felt like I had joy buzzers in my hands. Everything electronic in my house poofed out of existence. I jumped three feet in the air. The cats jumped about seven. Every smoke detector in the house went off at once, then magically stopped ten seconds later.

It's probably not the smartest move upon surviving a lightning strike to immediately run outside into a massive lightning storm, but I needed to make sure the house wasn't on fire. Once I was sufficiently soggy and confident that I wasn't about to turn into Shane Flambe, I came in and assessed the damage.

Despite owning a whole house surge protector, the hit tripped over half my circuit breakers. And, after resetting them, a few things didn't come back on. Like my laptop. And my TV. And my other TV. And my Blu Ray player, other Blu Ray player, cable box, DVR, X-Box, air conditioner and thermostat. Yikes.

So my world for the past two weeks has involved claims adjusters, insurance reps, repair guys, and more bureaucracy than you could shake a stick at -- not that you COULD shake a stick at it, because "it" appears to be located in a call center in India.

The moral of the story? I'm still working on it. My guess is it's something like "be afraid of storms." Or "don't call your friend a wuss lest karma will bite your butt with lightning." I'm gonna go with the easy answer: "Greg Dutra is a mystical seer who should be feared at all costs. Don't call him Fred Savage or he'll send the weather after you."


Anonymous said...

My parents grew up on farms and would always annoy me by turning off the tellmevision when the thunder and lightning went ah-boom-a-flashin', and a friend of mine had his house hit by lightning which fried all his wall socket umbilicals. Insurance companies aren't too bad for car issues, but I hate dealing with them for anything to do with my own honeycomb hideout. It gives me the same dreadful feeling I got when I let some Mormon boys in the door. Like I'd just allowed my house to be cased by wolves in sheep costumes. ("cosplay"? that word feels like a papercut) Too much Rockford Files probably. So anytime a big storm comes I unplug all my beloved magic switchcraft and pass the time with lo-tech pre-to-20th century amusements. I just want to thank you for reinforcing my quaint practice, oh and I came across your musings through a side bar local news scrawl on a weather site. Serendipity Doooooo!
--LocalVocal PaTroll X-Thousand

Steffanie said...

You love Storm Chasers AND one of your all time fav moobies is - TWISTER? I can, most likely, recite the entire movie, in the properly accented voices, word for word, from start to finish.


And, for the record, I unplug all my electrically powered gizmos, gadgets and whosawhatits when storm are on the horizon.

I hate insurance adjusters.