Minnesotans understand a funnel cloud, a menacing sky, the gusts of wind that mean business.
I thought about this in Auckland recently as I watched cars float down the street.
We had ignored the warnings, and the city and other parts of New Zealand were unprepared for the sheeting rain and floods that took lives and destroyed farms, homes, and roads.
Severe weather events happen in Stearns County, too, of course. And Minnesotans, with their finely tuned weather antennae, heed the warnings.
We grow up sniffing the air, scanning the horizon, mulling forecasts.
We grow up listening for the weather.
I have many weather-related Minnesota memories, some with photographic evidence.
Like the heavy 1960s snowfalls that required marathon shoveling sessions, creating impressively high banks along the sidewalks, streets, and driveways.
Those icy walls took months to melt when spring finally came.
Summers brought explosive thunderstorms and lightning strikes.
A fireball once blew out the telephone receiver Mom was holding; she was wary ever after of talking on the phone during a storm.
Funnel clouds always give pause.
We have these in New Zealand, too, but not like Minnesota’s in their frequency and damage potential (knock wood).
77% of Minnesota tornadoes occur between May and July.
The first recorded MN tornado was in Fort Snelling in 1820.
In 1886 Sauk Rapids was destroyed by a devastating tornado that also impacted St Cloud and Rice, killing 72 and injuring 200.
I still instinctively sense tornado weather: the bruised sky, the eerie stillness. We all learned early when not to ignore the weather.
Our St Cloud basement was our haven during tornado warnings.
My mother and I huddled there one year when a tornado screamed overhead, touching down a few blocks away.
Trees had been dragged into the vortex, falling into the parking lot of a nearby gas station. It was a miracle no one was injured or killed.
Mom and I couldn’t talk over the trumpeting winds and tornado sounds – we just sat side by side in the basement corner, glad to be underground.
Once you’ve heard the train-like roar of a tornado you never forget it, or want to hear it again.
Blizzards are a different kind of weather hazard.
If a blizzard struck while you were at school, you were told to grab your coat and mittens and walk home.
For me this was a six block trek from St Anthony’s with my little sister, holding hands, unable to see in the whiteout conditions, inching our way along the side of the road.
I relate to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s similar childhood experience, and how close she and her sister came to walking into the prairie to a certain death.
They were fortunate to bump into the corner of a familiar building, and could thus feel their way to safety.
They could hardly walk in the beating, whirling snow. The schoolhouse had disappeared. They could see nothing but swirling whiteness and snow and then a glimpse of each other, disappearing like shadows… She tried to think. The others must be somewhere ahead. She must walk faster and keep up with them or she and Carrie would be lost. If they were lost on the prairie they would freeze to death.Laura Ingalls wilder, the long winter
Without a prairie to wander into in suburban St Cloud, the odds were high during one bad storm that Cherie and I would arrive home eventually.
We knew that Mom didn’t drive, that Dad was at work, that we were on our own.
We were only eight and six. The hungry wind, the rasp of snowflakes against my parka hood. It’s an unpleasant memory.
Whenever I feel alone in a brutal landscape, physical or emotional, I get that Minnesota feeling.
I am back in the blizzard, feeling my way.
With time I retrained myself to focus not on the fear of this memory, but the triumphant return to Spaghettios and Mom and our young brother.
I was eight. I’d navigated the blizzard to get home safely with Cherie. Bravo!
Another time, during a family vacation in northern Minnesota, my sister Marti and I cross-country skied through idyllic birch-fringed woods in the late afternoon.
Then we realized we were lost.
We skied in circles as the sun became a watery butterscotch lozenge melting below the tree line.
We were cold.
Finally Marti collapsed into a snowbank.
“We are going to die out here, and my babies will be motherless.”Marti
She always was dramatic.
Luckily, perseverance is another life-saving Minnesotan trait.
On we went until we found a proper trail, arriving at our cabin as darkness fell.
Like Laura and her sister Carrie, we lived to tell the tale.
It’s been years since I experienced a blizzard.
But the Auckland floods triggered reflections about Minnesotans’ weather sensing flair.
We understand how deeply our fates are tied to what the weather does.
We know that ignoring these instincts in Minnesota has consequences, like when my older sisters took us to see the flooding of the Mississippi on the other side of town.
Halfway across the bridge, the bloated river surged over the road.
We were lucky not to stall, along with other rubbernecking fools on the bridge that day.
I’m a drama queen too.
But I learned a lifelong weather lesson on the bridge, and on many other occasions since.
Don’t go outside to watch the funnel cloud or the approaching tornado.
Don’t talk on a landline when there’s lightning.
Don’t ski to the liquor store for a bottle of brandy in a whiteout blizzard, or along remote unfamiliar trails in the late afternoon.
Don’t drive across the bridge when the Mississippi’s flooding.
Use your trusty Minnesotan weather antenna instead.
Turn on the radio.
Drink what’s in the cupboard even if you’d rather have a brandy.
Listen for the weather.
Stay home. Stay home.
I love Ro Tierney’s short film Snow Falling On Cuba Mall. Snow doesn’t often fall in Wellington, New Zealand, but that day it did. I get that Minnesota feeling in a good way when I watch it. You might like Ro’s little gem too.
Photos Bill Bennett, LenaMina.com