Natural Perspectives: A close call with tornadoes, storms, hail

Vic and I are back from our trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with the Photographic Society of Orange County. Due to Vic's teaching schedule, he arrived April 28, a day after I did.

The good news is that we survived. The bad news is that it was close. I arrived in Nashville on April 27, which was the day of the main tornado outbreak that killed so many people in the Southeast.

I had been worried about flying during the thunderstorms that were forecast for the area. But other than a lot of bumpiness that caused a few people to scream during the descent, the flight was fine. I thought the worst was over once we were on the ground, but I was wrong. For five of us shutterbugs, the real adventure was still ahead of us.

By now, everyone has heard about the outbreak of tornadoes that hit the Southeast during April 25 to 28. Most of them touched down in Georgia and Alabama, causing many billions of dollars of destruction and taking the lives of an estimated 340 people. In Tennessee, 31 people died. In comparison to loss of life and such extensive property damage, we got off lightly.

Mark Singer and I planned to fly into Nashville, rent a car and drive to the tiny town of Townsend near Knoxville. Stefan Steinberg, Lea Reynolds and Wendy Hill wanted to carpool with us, so Mark rented a Dodge Caravan that would hold us all. We were driving through the little town of Alcoa south of Knoxville when the rain got even heavier. Then it started to hail.

At first, the hail was small. Then it was the size of peas, then dimes, then quarters. The hail fell with a fury that I had never experienced. The sound of hail on the roof of the car was deafening, even painful. I put my hands over my ears to try to muffle the sound.

On at least two occasions, the hail was so thick that there was a complete whiteout. Mark had to pull over because he couldn't see beyond the hood of the car. I watched for the white line on the highway on my side of the car, which was the only way we could tell that we were still on the road. We all worried that someone coming from behind would hit us from the rear or that we'd run into something in front of us. We were afraid to move forward and afraid to stay still.

We hoped that the windshield wouldn't crash inward. The roof and windows of the car were all that stood between those big balls of ice and our heads. By then, the hail had grown to the size of golf balls.

I used my BlackBerry to send an email to Vic, my son, Scott, and a few of my friends. I worried that it might be the last e-mail that I would ever send. I saw one ice chunk at the side of the road that was the size of a baseball. I really wanted to get it but to step outside of the car could have been fatal.

Then as quickly as it had started, the hail stopped. Mark drove on with an inch of icy slush on the road. It wasn't until later that we thought about photographing the hail. Five photographers, but no photographs. That's how scared we were.

We stopped at a grocery store in Alcoa to calm down a bit and pick up some food for lunch in the park the next day. A storm chaser was in the store, showing people a photo of a funnel cloud that he had just photographed. It was in the area that we had just driven through. Fortunately for Alcoa, it apparently didn't touch down on land. The hail was bad enough.

When we checked the car for damage, we found that the windshield had several cracks and the car was completely covered with dents. It looked like a maniac wielding a ball-peen hammer had attacked it. We figured that the car was most likely totaled.

The thunderstorms continued into the wee hours of the morning. The weather service reported that the area was receiving more than 3,000 lightning strikes per 10-minute period. Mark was up late contacting the insurance company. Fortunately, the car was completely covered.

The storm cell also hit the Knoxville airport, damaging the cars in their parking lot and canceling flights. Four of our club members — Mike Whitmore, Denji Ebisu, George Hagen and a new member — were stuck in Chicago, unable to fly into Knoxville that evening. They were routed to South Carolina, where they spent the night. They flew into Knoxville the next morning.

Vic's flight from Orange County to Atlanta the next day was uneventful, but his flight into Knoxville was delayed because planes weren't where they were supposed to be. The severe storms moving through the Southeast had messed up schedules everywhere.

The rest of the trip was almost anti-climactic. The wildflowers in the park had been beaten down by the storm, but we got plenty of great photos of beautiful creeks and waterfalls. We snapped pictures of wild turkeys, deer and black bears in Cades Cove and the historic structures of the early settlers of the Appalachians. Each day, we gorged ourselves on hush puppies, catfish, grits, deep-fried pickles, pecan cobbler and other Southern delicacies.

When Vic noticed that Alcoa High School had a team called the Tornadoes, he bought "Alcoa Tornadoes" T-shirts for those of us who drove through that horrible hail storm.

On the ride back to Nashville at the end of our trip, we saw that all of the leaves and some of the bark had been battered off the trees in the area where we had been hit by hail. We're happy to be safe back home.

Check my blog at for videos and more photos.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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