Neighborhood shelter

Friday, April 25, 2014

It's that time of year again, when those of us who have lived all our lives in "tornado alley," begin to pay a lot more attention to weather. When I was a kid, my Grandparents had one of the only basements in our neighborhood. It became the unofficial adjacent "storm shelter," for everyone who wanted to join us, during a severe storm.

The idea for this story came to me a few days ago, when I watched some local television news regarding the continuing recovery from the May 2011 Joplin tornado. Can you believe that it has been three years?

I have written more than one story about the house of my grandparents, Ben and Helen Hart, which was located at 628 South Cedar. It holds so many memories from those impressionable years of my youth.

The time period that I am recalling was in the era when our local storm prediction and warning systems were far from adequate. Nevada had not yet installed the large warning sirens that can now be found atop multiple high poles around town.

Televised radar was in its infancy. KOAM Channel 7 had a small screen radar that was barely visible on our black and white TV sets. The term "Doppler" was not yet a part of midwestern vernacular.

In that time, warnings came from just a few sources. There were, of course, volunteer storm watchers. These brave citizens still operate today to give us the quickest first-hand sighting of a tornado.

Our sheriff and Police Departments were also in radio contact with other law enforcement agencies around the area, and if a violent thunderstorm was headed our way, they usually received a preview.

If any of the above auguries gave notification, all the local law enforcement vehicles would drive around town, with their sirens blaring. This was the final warning, and it was a signal for all of us to take cover.

The house at 628 S. Cedar was located on the northwest corner of Cedar and Douglas streets. There was a significant slope in Douglas as it trailed down the hill toward Main Street. This slope had made for an easy access walk-out basement at the back of the house.

Walk-out is not really accurate. The access to this basement was along a narrow driveway, surrounded on each side by concrete retaining walls. To enter the garage there was a very old-fashioned wood garage door. It was the old type of hinged and spring-loaded door, that raised all in a one-piece tipping motion.

There was no lock on this door. If anyone had wanted to enter the garage, they could do so at their will. I don't ever remember anything being stolen, but that was in a time when many people left most of their doors unlocked in Nevada.

There was one stormy night that I remember clearly. Some of the kids in the neighborhood had been playing on my grandparents front covered porch. We could stay dry and play there during the rain. When the rain started, there was a special smell that came with the downpour. I cannot describe it exactly, but most of you know the scent I am remembering.

At some point the thunder and lightening became more ferocious as it neared town. Then just as dusk was turning to early darkness, we all heard the sirens begin to wail, as they raced up and down the streets.

The adults immediately ushered us through the house to the basement. My grandfather turned on all the lights, but he also got down a couple of kerosene lamps that he had hanging from the floor joists, just in case they would be needed.

He told me to go and open the garage door. I knew exactly why he wanted me to perform this task, and I had just finished lifting the door open, when I noticed the first of the neighbor's flashlights.

From all over the surrounding blocks, I could see groups of people quickly moving toward our driveway and that open door to safety. It took no more than a couple of minutes, but by the time everyone was there, the wind had really begun to pick up, and there was even some hail bouncing on the concrete driveway.

We closed the garage door, and as if on signal, the electricity went out. Not missing a beat, the men lit the lanterns. Everyone's faces appeared strange in the flickering firelight.

It could only have been a few seconds, when a lightening strike hit really close. It was very loud, and the entire house seemed to shake in its wake. That's when one of the neighbor boys lost it.

I say lost it, because this young boy (who for his sake shall remain nameless even now), began to scream and run around wildly. His mother was trying to catch him and hold him, but he was having none of that.

I think that was the first time I had ever witnessed someone truly terrified. Finally his father and mine were able to grab him in their arms. They brought him to his mother, and she began to hold the sobbing child closely in her arms, all the while speaking softly and reassuringly to him.

It seemed like a long time, but probably it was only a matter of minutes, when we heard the all-clear sirens once more. Again as if by script, the lights came back on, and everyone thanked my grandparents for sharing their basement, before heading back to their homes.

Is your plan for shelter ready? If you have a safe place, please inform friends and neighbors of your strategy. I hope we never have a Joplin-type storm here, but being prepared, is just as important as it was back in the time of my grandparents neighborhood basement shelter!