Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Tornado

I put a lot of conditions on moving to Colorado, one of which was that Tom had to promise me that there weren't tornadoes in the area we were headed to. He promised. They happen, he said, but super rarely, and almost never West of the I-25. He lied.

Last May, on the last day of Ashley's preschool, we went to the park by their school for a class picnic. Aidan was in first grade, and at school all day. I had both the girls with me, and was finally starting to show being pregnant. It was a beautiful morning, with no warnings or watches posted.

When we had been at the park only about 20 minutes, the winds seemed to shift. We thought nothing of it at the time. Soon it started to rain - a quick passing thunderstorm, we figured. So, there we were, about 25 parents and about twice that number of kids, huddled under the shade structure waiting the storm out.

Except the storm didn't let up. It started to hail. Then the hail got bigger. And bigger. And bigger, until it was golf ball sized. By this point, kids were scared and crying. The shade structure had a metal roof and it was so loud we couldn't hear anything but hail and crying. The hail was bouncing off the ground and hitting us all in the shins. We huddled closer to the middle. The sky was getting darker and darker, almost a greenish color.

One of the moms had a weather alert program on her cell phone. Luckily, it must have been on vibrate mode because she looked at it. Tornado warning, Longmont. She showed it to the teacher, who peeked her head out from the shade canopy. Only then did she hear the sirens. The hail on the roof was so loud we didn't them.

More kids started crying, unsure of what exactly was going on. We quickly decided that the little shade canopy would provide absolutely no protection, and we ran, in small groups, to the cinder block bathroom. Over 70 people crammed like sardines into this teeny little park bathroom, praying for a miracle.

On that 25 foot run to the bathroom, some of us (myself included), made the mistake of looking up at the sky. Trust me, if you've never seen a funnel cloud above your head, consider yourself lucky. The pricipal called someone's cell phone and told us that we needed to get back to the school. We knew she was right - the bathroom was better than the shade structure, but it wouldn't save us if the cloud touched down.

So we ran, again. Carrying kids that belonged to us, and kids that didn't. We ran to the closest cars we could get to. Jumping over gutters that had become roaring rivers, wincing at the sting from the hail. Our legs would have the bruises to show for it later. We drove the two blocks or so back to school, ran to the kindergarten pod in the middle of the school and hid under tables and desks. For hours.

I found Aidan, hiding with his entire class in the girl's bathroom. They clearly didn't realize that it wasn't a drill. The older kids did, but the first graders were happy there, sitting in a dark bathroom listening to the teacher read stories. He was safe, as safe as any of us were that day.

I tried to call Tom about a million times, but the storms were messing with the reception. No one could get calls through. Even the land lines weren't working right. I finally got a hold of my in-laws and told them to get word to Tom that we were at the school, on lockdown. No one in or out of the building until the watches were canceled.

After a while, the storms eased and they told us that the kids could go back to their regular classrooms. The preschoolers and their parents could go home. I couldn't leave, not with Aidan still at school. I couldn't leave him there without me, so I stayed. A few of us did that - sitting around the tv in the preschool room, waiting for the day to end. Only after a few hours did the adrenaline start to wear off and the gravity of the day start to sink in. What if that funnel cloud had come down? There were so many kids out there with us.

I learned a lot that day, about Colorado and about myself. I learned that you can never, ever trust a weather forecast here. The weather can change in an instant, and you have to be prepared for anything. I also learned that I can and will do anything to protect my children. I was calm when it was all happening. I had to be brave for them, and I was. Only later, when the threat of the storms was over, did I get scared. I can honestly say that I have only been afraid for my life twice - one was the Northridge earthquake, the other was the day of the tornado. The tornado was different though, I had kids. I had to protect them and there was no time for me to worry about myself. There was no time for fear. The only thing that mattered was making sure that they were safe.

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