At 1:27 a.m. in the darkness, on an otherwise quiet Saturday night, all hell broke loose.
At that moment the town siren started screaming the warning for impending tornadoes. The night was stolen first by lightning bolts that looked like an angry weapon on some alien spaceship hovering over the town, bombarding helpless citizens with death rays. Along with the alien lightning came the down pouring of oceans of water.
Lightning strike after lightning strike swept through the night. With each light burst, I stood on the front porch straining to see if a dark funnel shape was emerging over the streets of Clinton.
Having lived in Arkansas during my youth, I am very familiar with the destructive power of wind storms and tornadoes on property. We lived in Wooster, Arkansas, just north of Conway, for several years. Always in May-June-July the storms came. It seemed that the worst ones came late at night as you were trying to sleep. Many a night I spent in underground shelters listening to the howling of deadly wind driven rain.
The local population learned through bitter experience that above ground shelters were no match for winds of over 200 to 300 mp per hour. Often in the early light of the next day, as we traveled back to our farm, we would see the hell that had occurred during the night.
Homes cut in half as if a giant saw had ripped away a whole house while someone slept through the night, only to find as they opened the bedroom door to look out onto “nothing” since the rest of the house had been carried away with the storm,.
The most powerful memory of that time for me was finding a small piece of wood, not more than a straw size being imbedded through the trunk of a much larger tree. The power of the storm had reached down into the molecular structure of the larger tree and push through a much small piece of wood.
All of the old memories and experiences flashed through my mind as I watched the storm gather energy and rage harder against the walls and roofs of the town. I could sense the dark shape of death and destruction lurking just beyond my sight. I could feel its presence as someone can experience the fact its going to rain just by stopping and feeling the wind on a summer afternoon.
All I could do was say a silent prayer to God that this night it was not our time to leave this plane of existence. I prayed that the town would still be there in the morning. Any F2 or F3 tornado would lay waste to the entire downtown.
The rain came down in torrents. It felt as if some invisible hand was emptying out giant buckets of water across the streets of this small town in anticipation of community disaster..
Our Siamese, General Rommel and our Maine Coon cat, General Mosby, were going crazy with the thunder crashing through their night along with the burst of lightning exploding through the thunder. All the while, rain hammered at the roof, the yard, and the windows. All their cat senses were being threatened.
Jefferson Street, in front of the house, rapidly became a raging river of angry water sweeping debris from yards and houses down to the creeks below our house.
In the course of several hours of rain, we probably received just over 7 inches of rain. This is important because at 3 to 4” of rain, most of the roads into Hickman County go under water and cannot be traveled. At 5” to 8’ inches of rain, roofs of older buildings risk severe damage or worse, collapse.
We lived through the night. The town of Clinton lived through the night. Yet, I was right, the dark funnel shaped bringer of death and destruction was there in the night shadows hiding in the lightning. It struck five miles to the south of Clinton, clawing its way for a short period of time across fields and tree lines.
A few years ago, rain events in Hickman County were about normal spring rains in April and May bringing forth multicolored wonderment of flowers and crops. Now, in 2010, we are living through a new reality of spring rains that often become “Killer Ice Storms” if they occur in late February or March or “Killer Wind Rain Events” where large amounts of water is dropped from the sky in a Dante’s vision of rain in April and May.
The annual patterns of too much water, coming to earth too fast in extreme weather events has now defined a new set of realities for local and regional planning. Government leaders, business concerns and private citizens now share a new dread of extreme weather events.
The end result is that too much water is causing new costs to already strained government, corporate, and personal budgets. Extreme weather disaster rebuilding is becoming big business.
As one Hickman County farmer said at a recent briefing for future young leaders, “Every time it rains, farmers either gain or lose money.”
Extreme weather is now a part of our lives. Our regional climate is changing toward stronger, longer duration, and more violent storms, whether it be snow, ice, wind, or rain we are in for a new co-existence with Mother Nature in rural America.