Story 11. Outbreak
About a year after Thermo’s encounter with Skates the ice monster, the little thermometer and his cloud pals Puffy and Fluffy were taking a leisurely flight toward the Ohio Valley in the eastern United States. It was a beautiful day in the spring of 1974.
“This way!” Thermo directed, as he guided his cumulus friends across the Mississippi River.
“Right behind you!” shouted Puffy.
Up ahead, Thermo noticed a great wall of clouds stretching east of the mighty Mississippi. He watched as the storm clouds rapidly grew taller and angrier. The last time Thermo had seen a sight like this was when he confronted Twista and her Clan of the Storms.
“I don’t like the looks of that,” fretted Fluffy, slowing down.
“Me neither,” said Thermo as he came to a halt. Examining the clouds’ structure, he noticed the lines of storms were broken into sections. They were boiling up higher and becoming more numerous. A flash of lightning illuminated one from the inside.
“What in the world is the Clan of the Storms up to?” questioned Thermo, scanning the sky for any sign of Twista.
As Puffy watched the spooky spectacle he answered, “I don’t know, but it can’t be good. What I do know is that we can’t do much to stop it.”
“True,” agreed Thermo. He remembered that during his terrifying run-in with Twista she had mentioned her husband Twisto and how he enjoyed destroying buildings and harming humans. “I think Twisto might be coming,” Thermo said uneasily.
Puffy was thinking the same thing. “I have an idea, Thermo,” he suggested. “Is there a way you can warn at least one or two humans in advance of Twisto’s attack? Perhaps they could get the word out to others. They have ways of broadcasting to one another, you know.”
“Yes, television,” offered Fluffy.
“And radio,” said Puffy.
Thermo nodded. “And I’ve heard there’s a new kind of radio system devoted entirely to weather information. It’s called NOAA Weather Radio.”
‘That’s right,” said Puffy.” It sends out warnings from the offices of the U.S. Weather Bureau.”
“It’s called the National Weather Service now,” Thermo informed. “Where’s the closest city with a Weather Service office?”
Puffy and Fluffy scanned the horizon. “I’m not sure, but probably in that direction,” he said, pointing toward Cincinnati, Ohio.
“Let’s go!” shouted Thermo, and the three hurried off, eastbound.
On the way, Fluffy called out to Thermo, “How are you going to warn the Weather Service meteorologists without being seen?”
Thermo knew she was right. Dr. Key had given him strict orders to keep hidden from adult humans. “I don’t know yet,” answered Thermo. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Soon they arrived at a building with a giant antenna on the roof. “Here we are,” announced Thermo, “the office of the National Weather Service.”
The three peeked inside a window and saw humans scurrying about. Some were examining crude printed maps from Teletype machines. Others were talking on telephones. Still others were glued to an electronic screen with a bright line sweeping around it like the second hand on a clock. Thermo had seen the same thing in Dr. Key’s laboratory. It was a weather radar monitor. Several humans were hunched over it, glued to its image.
“Those are the people we need to warn!” Thermo called to his two friends. “See them, Puffy? Right there, Fluffy!” He looked around, but the two had inexplicably disappeared.
“Puffy! Fluffy!” called Thermo in alarm. “Where are you?”
“We’re right here,” answered Fluffy’s voice. “Right in front of you.”
“I don’t see you,” said Thermo, confused.
“That’s because we’ve evaporated,” Puffy said. “Down here near the ground the warmer temperatures no longer allow condensation, so our cloud droplets have turned to water vapor.”
“Of course!” Thermo realized. “Water vapor is an invisible gas!” A tiny light bulb suddenly illuminated inside Thermo’s head.
“Puffy and Fluffy! You can warn the meteorologists without being seen! Just slip inside and whisper a warning in their ears. Tell them Twisto is on the way.”
“Great idea, Thermo!” whooped Fluffy. “Let’s go for it, brother!” And with that, the two clandestine clouds inconspicuously breezed inside.
Thermo watched through the window. He couldn’t see them, but Fluffy and Puffy immediately headed for the weather radar operators. Leaning up close to the ear of one of the humans, Puffy whispered, “Twisto! Look for Twisto!” Fluffy flew to another and did the same. “Twisto is out there! Find him!”
Suddenly one of the meteorologists pointed to the screen. “Look, I think that’s a hook echo!” The others bent down to examine the blip on the screen. Sure enough, the radar revealed the unmistakable curved image of a rotating thunderstorm. “You’re right,” said another. “That storm could mean a tornado! Put out the warning over the Teletype and the Weather Radio system. This is going to be a bad day.”
In fact, it was a bad two days, and the three friends witnessed it all. Thermo, Puffy and Fluffy flew back and forth from the Great Lakes to the South, watching helplessly as Twisto, his wife Twista and the entire Clan of the Storms freely and effortlessly destroyed homes, landscapes and even entire city blocks over thirteen states and part of Canada. They saw the tears of the humans as they mourned the loss of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children. Thermo thought of Nicky and Sydney, the children he had met on that snowy day only months before. He could still picture their happy faces in his memory banks. He hoped they were all right.
When it was all over, Thermo and his cloud friends sat quietly, staring off into space, dazed at the destruction.
“I thought we warned them,” said Fluffy, wiping away a raindrop tear.
“We did,” sighed Puffy, his voice breaking. “And many humans heard the warnings and survived. But I guess that’s not enough sometimes.”
They were silent for a few more minutes, and then Thermo said, “I need to go home. I need to talk to Dr. Key. Maybe he can explain why this happened. Maybe he can tell me what to do.”
Thermo hugged Puffy and Fluffy until he was damp. Then the three friends parted, promising they would one day meet again. Thermo sincerely hoped that would be a happier day than this one.
With a wave of his hand, the little thermometer turned his jets on high and rocketed westward, bound for the Hawaiian Islands and a reunion with his maker and guide.
In the real world, the April 3rd and 4th 1974 outbreak of tornadoes was called the “Super Outbreak,” and was one of the worst in the history of the United States, producing 148 tornadoes, many with long tracks over dozens of miles. More than 300 people were killed and damage was extensive. To this date there is no real correlation between the number and intensity of tornadoes and global warming, although it appears that tornado outbreaks are beginning to occur “out of season.” In other words, some tornadoes are developing across areas which typically would be too cold for storms, given the time of the year. Such was recently the case with the November 17, 2014 outbreak across Illinois and Indiana.
The real heroes of this story were the many men and women of the National Weather Service (called the U.S. Weather Bureau before 1970) along the path of the outbreak. The first weather radio broadcast was from Los Angeles in 1967. By the time of the “Super Outbreak” in 1974 there was a fairly large network of weather service offices broadcasting forecasts, watches and warnings using the NOAA Weather Radio system. Many people were saved in 1974 due to timely issuance of warnings, although it was not until the widespread use of Doppler radar after 1988 that warnings proved more accurate and provided more lead time. Before that, the Weather Service’s rudimentary radar detected tornadoes mainly by their hook-shaped echoes, though not every tornado produces one. 1974’s Super Outbreak convinced government authorities to plan and build the Doppler radar network, which today saves countless lives.
The text and artwork are copyright by Guy Walton. I would like to get this book published. Please drop me a note if you are willing to help.
To see the rest of the World of Thermo stories click: http://www.guyonclimate.com/category/worldofthermo/