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Mesa Musings: Tornado tales touch down close to home

The news out of the American South and Midwest lately has been horrific.

We Californians are spoiled to the extent that we can hardly comprehend what residents of those regions are forced to endure. Providentially, our gentle coastal climate is largely devoid of the destructive forces that make “big news” elsewhere in our land this time of the year.

Because we rarely encounter extreme meteorological conditions, we’re indifferent to reports of weather disasters 1,000 miles to the east. Tornadoes just aren’t in our frame of reference.

Over the past two months, however, we’ve been forced to take notice. The devastation has been remarkable.

Joplin. Tuscaloosa. Oklahoma City. Raleigh. Those cities and their environs have absorbed terrible blows. The spring of 2011 has developed into one of this nation’s deadliest tornado seasons. About 500 lives have been lost.

Because my daughter Jade — born and raised in Newport-Mesa — moved with her husband and four children to North Carolina a number of years ago, I’ve become a Weather Channel “regular.”

Most Californians needn’t ever consult this niche broadcast network. Our forecast is usually: “Another lovely day in paradise!”

But that’s not the case once you’ve traveled east of Lake Mead.

Jade and her family live in a small town 40 miles east of Raleigh, N.C. Her community is a magnet for tornadoes. Though clearly not as active as areas in Kansas and Oklahoma, her ZIP code has been tagged “Tornado Alley” by local residents.

Two years ago a young boy was killed two miles from Jade’s home when a twister hit his grandmother’s residence. Last year, a tornado demolished four houses a mile from Jade’s.

I’ve been there under tornado conditions, and it’s scary. The air is so thick you can cut it with a knife. The atmosphere is charged. The sky turns an ominous black, and it can hail in July.

My 87-year-old mother was raised in Kansas and tells tornado tales from her youth. But she doesn’t recall 1930s tornado activity equaling what we’ve seen recently.

On April 16, Jade called my wife, Hedy, and I in California to inform us they were under a “tornado warning.”

A warning is a notification that a tornado has been spotted or picked up by radar. I immediately switched on the Weather Channel.

Jade has experienced numerous tornado warnings in the seven years she’s lived in North Carolina, but this one proved particularly vexing. Twenty-eight tornadoes ended up being identified in the state that day.

She called us every 15 minutes for the next two hours to update us on conditions.

Within an hour of her first call, a huge tornado began to plow a path of destruction through Raleigh.

At 5 p.m. her time, Jade called again. I detected anxiety in her voice.

She doesn’t have a basement in her home, so she and the four children were huddled in a first-floor closet under the stairs. They covered themselves with sleeping bags and pillows.

Jade’s husband, John, a firefighter, was on duty.

She had to call us on her cell phone because power was out. She informed us that the sky was black, and it was hailing. She couldn’t see houses down the street.

“Dad, say a prayer for us,” she entreated.

John had just called her from the station, 15 miles away. He told her a tornado had touched down in Smithfield, 20 miles south of Jade’s location, and was headed in her direction.

After concluding our conversation with “I love you,” I got down on my knees.

I didn’t hear back from her for 45 minutes, but I watched on the Weather Channel as the cell moved in a northeasterly direction toward her location. As things played out, the tornado seemed to veer to the right and crashed into the town of Wilson, several miles from Jade’s home. Damage was widespread, but there were no deaths.

Jade finally called back to give us the “all clear.” We were enormously relieved.

Sadly, not all tornado stories have happy endings.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.