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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

November Twisters -- Nov. 22, 2013

November is not a month known for turbulent weather in the upper Midwest. It is typically a time of autumn when the last brown leaves of deciduous trees fall to the ground and winter slowly moves in. However, on Sunday, a fast moving cold front collided with unusually warm moist air pressing upward from the gulf. The rare seasonal convergence of air masses produced a diagonal chain of intense storms and tornadoes across the state. Since the 1800s, there have only been about a dozen tornadoes reported in Illinois during the month of November and these have all been downstate with low wind speeds. Within a span of a couple of hours, 7 strong tornadoes tore through towns from north central Illinois to the SW suburbs of Chicago. While there was only modest damage in the southern outskirts of Frankfort, both Washington and Diamond were devastated. Those towns were leveled and only a few buildings were left standing. The path of destruction just missed the homes of my sister and mother. From Stateville, I was not aware of the twisters until I turned on my television. Unfortunate, I thought in retrospect, they did not obliterate this penitentiary rather than those small residential towns.

The morning news mentioned the possibility of strong thunderstorms passing through the area. However, I did not take the weather forecast seriously. It was November and the news media regularly over hypes events, even the most mundane. Furthermore, I was a prisoner caged within layers of steel and concrete. What did a threat of severe weather mean to me? The only time I left the building was to walk to and from the chow hall. In the morning, I did not notice any ominous weather approaching and in fact it was quite nice outside. Although it was breezy, I enjoyed the wind and mild 60 degree temperatures.

Typically, I work out in the cell early in the morning, however on this day, I waited until noon. Facing the outer wall of the cell house during part of my exercises, I was able to see out the plexiglass windows. The skies quickly darkened until most of the light was coming from the dim interior cell house lights that occasionally flickered. Then I noticed sheets of rain falling at an angle with men periodically running on the concrete walk which is the length of the building. Over a guard's radio I heard a beeping followed by a "stop all movement" order and they were the last people I saw outside until shift change. I enjoy fierce storms and they have the effect of invigorating my oppressive and dead to the world existence. For an hour I work out at a fast pace nearly every day, but on Sunday I exercised with an even greater intensity.

In the chow hall earlier, I had stripped baked chicken from the leg and thigh bones to place in a zip lock bag. I also took the rice and broccoli stems to go. My plan was to eat my lunch while watching the second half of the Chicago Bears/Baltimore Ravens football game. However, after washing up, I turned on my television to discover the game had been delayed. Torrents of rain were coming down at Soldier's Field and most of the stadium was void of people. I was incredulous. Football games were never called off due to adverse weather. Players were on the field regardless of sub-zero temperatures, snow, rain, or high winds. These were our modern day gladiators and I expected them to battle come what may. Even after hearing reports of tornado citings, I still thought they should be on the field. Yet another example of how Western society was soft and angrily I turned off my TV.

I ate my food at the table near the cell bars without any entertainment. A couple of times a cell house worker stopped by to ask me what if the game was cancelled. I thought this was a stupid question. Other than for hurricanes and when a stadium roof collapsed,  I had never heard of a football game being cancelled. I told him to rest assured all the Chicago Bear fans or haters in the unit, the game would eventually resume. I was correct, and later my cellmate who was watching TV told me the game was back on. I watched the two teams battle it out in the mud and rain during the final quarter. The Bears won by a field goal upsetting the Ravens who were favored. That is what I call home field advantage.

After the game, I was going to read until the late game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos.  Kansas City was undefeated and had one of the best defenses in the NFL. The Denver Broncos contrarily had the most explosive offenses with quarterback Peyton Manning and a receiving Corps with the likes of Wes Welker and Eric Decker. My interest in the clash of football teams, however, preceded my interest in the clash of weather. All of the local television stations were reporting news of the tornadoes that touched down in a series of villages from north central Illinois to the southwest suburbs of Chicago. I never heard of the town of Washington, but was very familiar with Coal City and Frankfort. I turned from station to station to see if I could recognize anything familiar or learn any details.

News reporters were having a difficult time getting to the devastated areas. Apparently, downed power lines, debris, and police barricades blocked roads into the worst hit parts of these towns. Furthermore, although the storms had passed, darkness was quickly descending and camera crews were limited in the film footage they could get. Live video and still shots were broadcast on the news networks and I skipped around seeking those which were closest to where my mother, but mainly my sister, lived. Coal City was repeatedly described as being wiped off the map. Photos from Interstate 55 showed a residential area flattened in the distance. Later this was reported as Diamond Estates.

In Frankfort, Illinois, a news crew was outside a farmer's house. The owner of the home spoke about the damage to his property including a tree that fell through the roof. I was surprised there was any farm land left in the town. From what my parents had told me the area I used to live in has radically changed. Homes and businesses apparently filled all the woods, farmland, and vacant areas. However, the news reporter then said they were on the far south end of town near Steger and Route 45.     I reasoned this area was probably still mainly countryside. I also reasoned that if the tornado was this far out, my mother did not face any danger.

Normally, I do not watch local news. It usually focused on Chicago and not the suburbs where I had grown up. However, the following day I tuned in for the late afternoon broadcasts. Now that some time had passed, news networks had more specific news to report. Also, because it was daylight, they were able to show plenty of footage of the wreckage left by the twisters. The town of Washington was almost entirely destroyed and there were large swaths of Diamond or Coal City missing. My sister moved to that area after my arrest and I did not know if her home was still standing. I did know, however, the only fatalities were in Washington and there was surprisingly only several injuries reported from Diamond Estates. With this news I could make jokes with my cellmate. All of the homes leveled were wood frame houses and I commented they apparently never were told the children's story of the Three Little Pigs. This is why my parents always built brick homes. I also noticed how nearly everyone in Diamond and Coal City had above ground pools and even the homes which survived had the pools in their back yards flattened. I told Anthony how my sister loved her pool and must certainly be unhappy.

I went to dinner after watching the news. It was a crisp cold night without a cloud in the sky. A large full moon hovered over the prison wall. The weather was a great contrast from that in the morning before the storm. Over the weekend it was overcast and in the 60s. Now it was below freezing. At the chow table I sat with Fat Pat and some other men I acquaint with. They seemed incredulous that I did not bother to call my mother or sister to see if they were alright. There was nothing I could do if my mother needed help or if my sister's house had blown away. Furthermore, I told Fat Pat neither of them was dead. "Are you not the least bit interested in what happened?" he asked. I said, "I will find out soon enough." Regardless, I thought, whatever their problems were they could be fixed, and were minute compared to my own.

Later I watched Monday night football without any concern for my family. It was after all the New England Patriots playing the Carolina Panthers. The Patriots were still a team I favored despite their decision to let go a number of players I liked such as Danny Woodhead, Wes Welker, and others. I hated the loss of dynasties to the free agency system where players were traded regularly as if they were baseball cards. It ruined the loyalty within and without franchises. The Patriots still had clutch tight end Rob Gronkowski, however, and with only seconds on the clock he went to catch the game winning touchdown. Unfortunately, he was held in the end zone and unbelievably the flag which was thrown was picked back up. I am very critical of referees regularly intervening in the game, but this was a blatant foul. One of Carolina's defense players actually had his arms entirely around Gronkowski. If that is not a hold, nothing is.

It was prison as usual on Tuesday. After coming off the yard, the sergeant told me to step into the bull pen. Earlier prisoners had commented about Internal Affairs in the unit. When I saw other men sent into the holding cage with me, it was obvious the security unit was conducting drug tests at random. I preferred the random drug tests rather than the ransacking of cells and was glad the guard asked me first to give a urine sample. While I waited for the cup to give results, I made some small talk with the man from I.A. He was a guard I have known for several years and I get along with. Some guards may hover over you while you take a piss and make you want to ask them if they want to hold it, but not him.

After returning to my cell,  I bathed out of the sink and then went straight to bed, or prison bunk. I was tired from working out and was asleep until well past 3 p.m. For the rest of my day I read and although I listened a little to the Sean Hannity show on the radio, I did not turn on my TV once. I had taken in enough coverage of the tornadoes and there was nothing else which interested me on TV. Including a few newspapers, I read November's National Geographic. Coincidentally, the magazine's main story was called "The Last Chase" and was about a storm chaser who died following one of the country's largest and most deadly tornado cluster. On the cover was a photo of the monster twister which claimed 22 lives in El Reno, Oklahoma earlier this year.

More than the story, I was interested in the facts about tornadoes. Much of it was information I already knew, but I wanted to review and understand the phenomena better. Tornadoes can occur in the UK, India, and Australia, however there was no place in the world where they are nearly as prolific as in this country. The U.S. has a unique topography that produces more than 1,000 tornadoes annually and most of these occur in the plains or what is called "Tornado Alley." The Midwestern plains are where warm moist gulf air hits the cool dry air moving over the Rocky Mountains in the west. This convergence of contrasting air masses generally occurs in the spring and thus why November tornadoes are so rare. Modern Doppler technology can measure the intensity of rotating storms known as super cells but it is impossible to predict if they will create tornadoes and the odds are 20 to 1. Tornadoes are ranked by wind speed with an EF5 being the highest and usually most destructive. I have learned about the EF scales, but did not know they were named after a Japanese meteorologist who began his career measuring the destruction of the nuclear bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The tornadoes which crossed Illinois last Sunday were Enhanced Fujita, or EF 4 and EF2.

After the story by Robert Draper, I read a long segment about Nigeria. My cellmate noticed me taking notes and asked why I was so interested in the African country. I have been in prison over 20 years, and isolated as I am, I like to learn about other parts of the world. This is a reason why I like reading and looking at the photographs in National Geographic. I did, however, also have an ulterior motive. A lieutenant, who I occasionally converse with, emigrated from Nigeria and I wanted to learn more about his background. The article covered the civil unrest and carnage created by the Islamic terrorist group, Boko Haram. Nigeria has little peace, law, and security ever since the British and emir left in 1960. The most populous country in Africa is greatly divided between the Islamic north and Christian south, as well as between the rich and the poor. According to the article, 1% are very wealthy in large part due to the country's oil resources, but two thirds live in squalor. From reading the corporate reports of Shell, I have learned about the oil and the corruption, theft, and graft which comes of it. The situation is so bad the Dutch energy major is divesting itself of interests there. In any event, this probably explains the lieutenant's love of Barack Obama and socialism.

Recently, the lieutenant has been obsessed with Obamacare and how the website is being ridiculed. The problem, however, is not the site, but what the government mandated program will do to the country. In order to insure a relatively small number of people, many millions more will lose their private insurance and preferred doctors. They will also pay more and be treated at lower quality medical facilities. The young, wealthy and healthy will be forced to pay for the old, poor and sickly in classic Obama redistribution and socialist ideology. If the system does not pick up enough of the strong to pull the weak, government will step in to pay for it, spreading costs to all taxpayers. Last week, the lieutenant from Nigeria came to my cell while prisoners were gone to chow seemingly just to once again try and convince me of the merits of the Affordable Care Act, but he soon realized he was wasting his time. Unfortunately, he cannot be convinced in free market reform and how despite the president being a black Kenyan his policies are not in his or the country's best interests.

I received a visit earlier this week and ultimately learned the experiences of my mother and sister. My mother was at home when she heard the tornado sirens for the first time since she moved there. She did not seem terribly upset and said she simply went into the basement with the dog. There was no damage to the house and the twister as reported was several miles to the south in what is now still predominantly farm land. My sister and her husband just happened to go to lunch at a restaurant in Joliet. They did not even know about the tornadoes until people began calling them on their cell phones and asking if they were alright. After waiting for the storm to pass, they had an anxious drive back not knowing if their house was still standing. As usual, they exited I-55, but were met by a multitude of police, firefighters, and emergency personnel from all over the area. The police had the road into town barricaded and adamantly refused to let anyone go through. For the next hour they traveled all the way to the other side using back roads. Once again they found police were there stopping traffic and turning people around. My bother-in-law was fed up and argued with one of the officers. He yelled at him that his house was right there, and pointed in the distance. Finally, the cop let him through after telling him if he was electrocuted by a fallen power line, he was warned. There was debris everywhere, but the tornado had ravaged a subdivision further to the east. The only damage their home incurred was some roofing and gutters which were torn off. No, my sister's pool was not swept away although many others in Diamond and Coal City did not survive.


  1. That storm was brutal. Trees were down all over my neighborhood and the power was out for a while.

  2. Why is it Illinois can never get any federal aid for natural disasters ? No federal aid for the big tornado in Harrisburg a few years ago either. But every time a storm hits the south it's pass the hat time for the rest of the country.


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