We had a storm yesterday. I know that I should be used to severe thunderstorms by now, and in general I am, but I’m not usually in any real danger. Plus, living in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, where they set off the sirens if there’s cloud-level rotation, I guess I’ve grown used to it.
But yesterday’s storm marked the first time that the City of Chicago set off its air raid sirens (all 100 or so) for anything other than a routine test. Something on the order of 20-30 funnel clouds were sighted all over Cook and DuPage Counties, and one of those rumored to be a possible tornado (nobody really seemed to know) was cutting a line through Evanston directly toward the Loop (that’s the skyscraper district for the uninitiated).
I didn’t know that at the time. I was standing at a window, watching the clouds. They were unearthly, violent yet beautiful. I’m educated enough to know that green clouds are not a good thing (they tend to contain hail, and often appear before tornadoes), but I’ve never seen clouds move like that.
Then the sirens started.
At first, I wasn’t sure if they were going off or not; they kind of blended into the sound of the wind outside, which meant that the sound kind of gradually got louder, but eventually you couldn’t miss it, the eerie rasp rising and falling out of the storm. But still I didn’t move. If anything happened, I wanted to see it.
(Later, telling my friend Ashley about it, she said, “That’s how people get killed.” Yeah, I know.)
Finally, the sirens cut, and there was relative quiet for a moment, though the action in the sky remained unchanged. Then there was a new sound: dozens and dozens of emergency vehicles, the electronic warbles of police cars and ambulances mixing with the more organic sound of the crank-style fire truck sirens they have here. The whole effect of those two sounds, the air raid siren followed by emergency vehicles, is one of the oddest feelings I have ever felt. It’s fear and sadness and hope all rolled into one; something awful has happened, but help is on the way.
Shortly thereafter, we went to the lowest floor of the dorm and watched laughably inadequate coverage on television. (You’d think that, in a market of 3.5 million homes, they could turn off the damn commercials and show radar for a while so that we could know whether or not there was a tornado bearing down on us.) Then they cancelled the warning, and we returned to our lives.
But the sound of those sirens is not something I’m going to forget soon.