A couple of days into my latest trip to Ohio, I am awakened at 11:30-ish pm by what sounds like an air raid siren. “It’s a tornado warning,” Mike says. I lay there instantly wide awake and discomfited, adrenaline coursing. “What’s that mean – a warning? Are we supposed to do something?” I was already picking up my phone to Google when I noted the large red banner message filling my screen:
Tornado Warning: Take Action! A tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. There is imminent danger to life and property. Move to an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. Avoid windows.
And so on. After marveling at the tracking technology that located me within the relatively small affected area to communicate a dire message, I scramble to find my shoes. Then grab iPad and wallet. Mike lives on the 3rd floor of an apartment building with no basement. Although he seems open to waiting it out in proximity to the two large windows leading out to the rain-blurred deck, I am having none of it. I am a huge fan of apocalyptic thunderstorms, but once the wind starts twisting in on itself like a disturbed cat and batting cars and building into its maw, I quickly lose enthusiasm. We beat a retreat down the stairwell and enter the ground floor hallway, where various persons, singly or in pairs, huddled outside their respective doorways. We appeared to be the only non-ground floor residents who made the trip.
“I’m from California,” I announce. “Not quite sure what we’re supposed to do…” A couple pairs of eyes flicker over to us but quickly return to their phone screens. No one says anything. Mike and I take a seat on a ledge abutting the entryway. I immediately place calls to my parents and our daughter in California to inform them of our potential appointment with catastrophe. I do this mostly to sequester the film playing in my head, splicing together all the YouTube clips and dramatic movie scenes (The Wizard of Oz, Twister, Into the Storm) that are filled, invariably, with people being snatched up into the sky, pinwheeling head over heels with nothing to cling to. You can’t even hear their screams.
Ohioan folks are more taciturn than I had expected. They strike me as more like how New Englanders are usually portrayed, stiff upper lip and stoic brow, and all that. The supermarket checkers are not near as chatty as the ones in my local store. They seem to talk to each other just fine, but not really notice me. Or maybe they do, and they can tell I can’t fit myself in to the local narrative arc. I am not of this land, these swards of unending, undifferentiated green; black, looping telephone wires tangled against mountain-less skies; miles of haphazard strip malls and chili franchises – lord, Ohioans love their Skyline Chili. None of the boulevards run straight here, always curving and doubling back around intervening industrial parks and silos, then running at a diagonal until you’ve completely lost track of direction. Many roads are little more than country lanes, winding through neighborhoods backed by more green thickets and dense trees. Ponds dot the landscape. But the element that never fails to astonish me is the empty land – acres and acres of fallow fields, emerald green grassland, and snarled bushes interspersed between compact rows of Victorian houses, more industrial parks, apartment complexes with open patios strewn with BBQs and bicycles, and lone convenience stores crowning the hills. In Southern California, land has not been empty for decades; when some structure is torn down another, grander building immediately replaces it.
Mike and sit for 10-15 minutes in the hallway, pecking at our phones. We hear someone down the hall state, “It’s over,” just as we receive notification that the tornado has passed. Quickly, front doors open and close, the hallway empties, and Mike and I climb the stairs back to his apartment. I lay awake for a while, staring out the window at the rain, displaced, restless. My body is geared up for survival and resists the comfort of bed, turning and twisting this way and that to find a path back into sleep.
On July 4th, I am sitting on the curb along Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, watching the parade when I feel the ground beneath me buckle and roll. Like the rhythmic waves breaking onshore behind me, the asphalt has become an undulating ribbon of rock and roll, a subtle shifting of the topography that my eyes can’t quite focus but my inner ear definitely feels. “Hey, are we having an earthquake?” I ask quietly, to no one in particular, not wanting to call attention to what could be The Big One. We are literally a hundred yards from the ocean and any potential tsunami will have its way with the thousands of us gathered for one of the biggest Independence Day celebrations in Southern California. Although the streets run in straight lines east/west, north/south, most of them are closed to traffic within a mile radius for this parade. Thousands of cars are parked along residential streets with no easy outlet. The landscape is flat and unwavering, studded with spindly palm trees that don’t strike me as sturdy anchors. There are two buildings over two stories in the vicinity, the respective wings of the Marriot resort made almost entirely of glass. The Boy Scout troupe wrestling a large flag into compliance continues marching along, though, folks cheering and waving from the sidelines. No one else seems to notice, so I stand and look behind me and note the waves still rolling in, regular and soothing, and I decide it’s not The Big One. The shaking continues for at least a minute, but so many people are jumping up and down, waving arms and bouncing their heads vigorously in time to the music that I decide they could just as well be its source. It’s only an hour later, as we make our way home past open bars with televisions blaring that we learn of the 6.4 earthquake that hit Ridgecrest, some 125 miles away.
The next night I am in front of my computer, watching an episode of Stranger Things, when the earth sways into motion, gradually building its sashay until the leaves on my mother’s potted palms are rustling in rhythm and the windows rattle in their frames. “Do you feel it?” my dad calls from downstairs and my mom and 9-year-old niece and I compare notes: they sense a slight movement, feel unsteady on their feet, I can count a mounting beat as the shaking persists for over a minute. I call my daughter in Huntington Beach (tsunami!) but the circuits are tied up. Five minutes of repeatedly checking Google for an update, we learn this one to be a 7.1, again, centered outside Ridgecrest. The media warns that these major quakes signal an end to a 20-year draught of temblor activity in Southern California; The Big One is overdue. Consider this a warning.
On the phone from Ohio, Mike asks, “Quick! Which do you prefer: tornado or earthquake?” My inner geography immediately responds “Earthquake!” It’s what I know, what I’ve lived with for most of my 57 years. Even Moldova, where I did a three year stint in the Peace Corps, was prone to earthquakes, not tornadoes. But there’s something reassuring about that red banner appearing on my phone, giving me a chance to seek shelter, call loved ones, hold my husband’s hand as we trudge up and down the stairs. With an earthquake, one gets very little, if any, warning. Boom hold on – only nothing is stable and the very ground can liquefy beneath you. I suppose we’ll hear each other’s screams during the worst of it. Unless, of course, tsunami…