It took me a while to figure out what the sound of the booming sirens meant. I heard them every once in a while, usually in the middle of the day, usually when it was brilliantly sunny outside. I thought little of them.
After living in Minneapolis for about a year and a half, though, a new friend finally called me one day around lunchtime, just as the sirens started to blare and fade, blare and fade.
"I just wanted to let you know," he said, "those sirens go off at 1 p.m. on the first Wednesday of every month. They're tornado drills. They give people a chance to practice what they'll do in case of a real tornado. The same sirens go off when tornadoes come through the city. I wanted to let you know so that you don't get scared."
His warning had the opposite effect. I've lived in the Northeast, where there are thunderstorms, in California, where there are earthquakes, and in Texas, where people die from the heat. But tornadoes are still new to me, and, I admit, they terrify me.
Every first Wednesday and during the occasional summer storm when sirens sound, I think about Dorothy in the movie The Wizard of Oz. A dark, swirling funnel cloud destroyed her home and transported her into a weird world where she didn't know anyone.
So, I was fascinated by the tornado challenge at DCYSC this year. I watched and watched, eager to learn the secrets of these spirals of wind that can pick up houses, trailers, and cars as if they were made of plastic. Every time a team managed to get their fans pumping at the right speeds and in the right directions to create a towering funnel cloud, I was mesmerized.
When I looked around, I noticed that lots of other people turned to watch, too, often from across the room. When visitors came to see the competition, they always ended up gathered around the tornado challenge. Judges, hosts, and chaperones on break tended to drift over there, too.
I guess there's something about the unpredictable fury of nature that fascinates us. And that makes sense. People do what they can to separate themselves from the forces of nature. We build strong houses, wear high-tech waterproof fabrics, and even evacuate entire cities when things get bad.
The bottom line, however, is that the natural world is far more powerful than we are. Seeing what it can do has a way of putting us in our place. And the smaller we feel, the more we realize what really matters.—Emily Sohn