Helpless

By: Stephanie Rice

Getting in and out of Baltimore on a game day is a crapshoot. We left our house an hour early and still arrived late to our appointment at the hospital. We left the hospital an hour early and were set to arrive late picking up the boys from daycare too. I did the courteous thing and called the daycare to let them know that my husband and I would be running closer to the 3:30 side of pickup time rather than 3:00. The employee returned my gesture of consideration with rudeness and a lecture about childcare ratios, which only served to stress me out more as we sat in I-95 traffic, helpless.

At this time, I didn’t understand how “helplessness” would evolve.

At around 3:20 we exited onto Rt. 32, exactly ten minutes away from daycare. I was worrying so much about being late, being rude, picking up late fees and having the daycare be angry with us. I’ve never been late before. I didn’t want to show up late today. Thankfully, it looked like we’d be on time.

But then the skies darkened. Considerably. Others in the Columbia area described it as the light dimming completely and it becoming night time in the middle of the day. It was very apocalyptic. Very foreboding.

We had our eyes on the storm clouds as we were driving down the I-95 corridor. They didn’t look as threatening then, and the only thing I could think of when I saw them was how we’d definitely be late since once it starts raining in Maryland, everyone forgets how to drive a car.

But the clouds had changed in that short amount of time. They became flat and angry. They no longer looked like “just a bad thunderstorm” clouds, but were taking shape. First, there was just a smattering of rain, and then a downpour. It blew past our car, over our car, and not so much onto it, the way rain usually falls.

I looked around us in a panic. The other cars on the highway were slowing down. It was like we all realized at once that whatever we were caught in wasn’t going to be pretty. I turned my head and looked out the passenger side window and noticed that the line of trees off near the shoulder were all bent down, their leaves nearly touching the ground. I felt my stomach drop.

The emergency tones on our phones went off at the same time, with the monotone voice of a woman announcing soon after: “TORNADO WARNING. TAKE SHELTER IMMEDIATELY.” We could barely hear it over the sound of the wind and rain.

Now, I will be the first to tell you that as a child, I watched the movie Twister like it was my job. I was obsessed. I wanted to be a storm chaser. I am sure that my stepmom became annoyed with me when I excitedly asked every storm we had, “Do you think there will be a tornado?” The answer was always a deadpan, “No.” And then a reminder that tornadoes don’t usually touchdown in the middle of Pennsylvania. But, oh! How I wanted to see a tornado.

About seven years ago, I ran an errand to Walmart. While inside, a terrible storm blew in. Hail dropped down on the roof and people huddled in the lobby, staring at the violent winds and bent over trees. I, on the other hand, waited until it let up just a little bit, then decided I wasn’t going to die in a Walmart and ran to my car to drive the quarter mile (if that) back home. When I arrived back to my house, I was soaked and running on adrenaline. I didn’t find out until the next day that I drove through a EF-0 tornado, and I thought it was absolutely hilarious.

But now, in this moment, while I sat in our new minivan, winds howling around us, lightning and thunder crashing, car trembling, phones blaring with “TAKE SHELTER” alerts…I realized there was nothing we could do. Nowhere to take shelter. And I started to cry. It was anything but hilarious.

My husband turned to me and asked, “Why are you crying?” I don’t think he quite understood what was happening. He didn’t hear the tones or the warning. So, I replied back to him between gulping down breaths of air, “I don’t think you understand that we are literally in a tornado right now.” And after that, we were quiet.

What are you supposed to do when you are stuck in your car in the middle of a tornado? You are supposed to remain in your car under two conditions: you can’t drive away from it, or there is a ditch nearby that you can huddle down low in and take cover from flying debris. Well, we couldn’t drive away from it, and there weren’t any tornado ditches nearby in Maryland. So, here were stood, stuck, vulnerable — helpless.

In this moment, many things rushed through my mind. Were we going to blow away? Was the car going to tip over? Should I duck down? Should I go into the back of the van? Where are my children? Is the tornado close to them? Are they scared right now? Will I ever see them again?

Helpless.

Some cars decided to pull over to the shoulder, but I told my husband not to. “There are too many trees on the side of the road. Just keep moving forward.” The tornado had to end somewhere. They don’t just stay in one place, and we weren’t going to either. I am thankful that the other cars were also maintaining calm and inching forward along with us. We were all in this together, crawling down Rt. 32, surrendering to the tornado.

It felt like it would never end, but at some point, the clouds started to clear, and the sun began to shine through. The winds stopped. The rain disappeared. All that was left was a highway filled with tree branches, leaves and debris, and the stunned drivers in their cars. We navigated off the highway when we reached our exit, which was very close to where all of this took place, and wove around fallen trees to finally arrive at daycare.

They had no power there, and the children were all sheltered in place still. One of the providers asked me who we were there to pick up, and when I opened my mouth, I could only cry. My husband answered for me. Our children were oblivious to the peril that happened outside. It wasn’t until I told my older son that daddy and I drove through a tornado did he start to cry. Funny enough, he wasn’t crying because he was scared or even because I was scared and still crying. He cried and told me, “It’s not fair! I wanted to see a tornado! I have never seen a tornado before!”

I honestly hope he never does, aside from maybe watching them on Twister and dreaming of being a storm chaser.

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