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May 04, 2004

If there's one sound I hate to hear, it's the screech of the Emergency Broadcast System.

OK, there's one sound that I'll presume is worse: that of an oncoming tornado. I've never heard one, and I hope never to hear one, but I can only assume that it's far far worse than the EBS noise.

We had a Tornado Warning yesterday. Fortunately for me, the tornado touched down about 12 miles from here. Thankfully, I've not heard that anyone was hurt. All we had right here was a thundersorm.

Thunderstorms are not an uncommon weather phenomenon here in NC. But short of a hurricane, none of the weather I've seen here compares to the seasonal monsoon storms I saw during three summers in Korea.

In June of 1990, our platoon of MI troopers had been tasked to go to the field with one of the armor battalions from the 2nd Infantry Division to monitor their communications, making sure they weren't using bad radio procedure. We were to report security lapses in an effort to improve the tankers' security.

So, SGT Rick, SPC Dave and I piled our gear in our HMMWV and headed to the field site that had been chosen for us, one of several hilltops overlooking the tankers' exercise area.

In hindsight, a hilltop might not have been the wisest location.

We arrived and proceeded to do the usual things MI troops do in the field -- we set up the radios, the portable radio mast antenna, and our individual shelters. The radios were easy, since they were mounted in the HMMWV. All we had to do was set up the OE-254 antenna mast -- about 50 feet away from the truck -- and hook up the RF cables. Piece of cake.

In hindsight, a 40-foot-tall mast antenna might not have been the wisest thing to set up.

As the afternoon wore on, the wind picked up and clouds began to roll in. We began to worry that the wind might knock down the mast, so we double-checked the guy-wires; we also paid attention to our shelters (basically, ponchos strung between trees and staked to the ground.) The wind continued to increase, and our shelters gave up.

In hindsight, ponchos were probably a bad idea.

We could see that rain was coming, so we loaded our personal gear back into the HMMWV. Darkness fell quickly as thick black clouds rolled in. Then the rain began. The three of us piled into the HMMWV as the deluge began.

In the BBC TV series "Blackadder II," the character Captain Redbeard Rum (played delightfully by Tom Baker of Dr. Who fame) says of the Cape of Good Hope, "the rain beats down so hard it makes your head bleed." I can only assume that the writer had been to Korea. You've heard all the folksy expressions describing how hard it may be raining? Cows peeing on flat rocks, and so on? Well, none of those expressions do justice to the monsoon rain. It was as if God Himself had decided we were a fire that needed to be put out.

The ragtop on our HMMWV began to leak. The wind was blowing rainwater into the truck through the gaps around the doors. The three of us were soaked to the skin, along with all our gear.

All this time our mission had continued. There was no thought of abandoning the site, of packing up and driving down off the hill. Of course, the fact that the "road" (more accurately, "goat trail") we had driven up had washed out may have contributed to our decision to stay put. We were wet, but still mission-capable.

Then the lightning came.

It began off in the distance, maybe a couple miles or so away. It came closer -- much closer. Then realization dawned on us: we had an antenna up on a mast on top of a hill, with cables running into our thoroughly soaked vehicle. And the "flash [wait] bang" time was getting shorter and shorter.

Realizing the situation, SGT Rick called in to our commander with a final "we're going off the air" message. The rain beating on the roof of the truck and the nearly uninterrupted BOOM of thunder made speaking on the radio -- or face to face -- nearly impossible. The moment he signed off, we disconnected all the antenna cables from the radios and threw them out of the vehicle and removed the whip antenna from the back of the truck. We were now wet and miserable, with no commo, a leaking vehicle, squatting on the HMMWV seats to keep our butts as dry as possible.

Not a minute after we disconnected the radios and antennas, the lightning found us. What had earlier been "flash [wait...] boom" became "flash[pause]BOOM!!!" then "flashBANG!!! fl..BANG!!! BANG!!!" There was a flash of lightning and a simultaneous peal of thunder every few seconds. Our antenna mast, still upright despite the wind, was struck over and over.

In hindsight, the antenna mast acting as a lightning rod probably saved us.

This continued for what seemed like hours. It seemed that way because it was hours, about 4 hours, lightning striking all around the vehicle as the three of us squatted on the seats, praying that the next "fl..BANG" wouldn't be the one that fried us where we sat. [We had come to the conclusion that sheltering in a rain-filled ditch was not likely to be any safer than staying in the vehicle. And in the vehicle, we avoided the chance of drowning.]

Finally the lightning moved off, though the rain continued. None of the three of us slept very well - or at all -- that night. I don't really remember.

The storm moved out of the area, and the morning dawned clear and sunny. We reestablished contact with our commander, and were ordered off the hill. Out of communications and at the center of the storm as we had been, people had worried about us. Driving down the hill, we came across our platoon sergeant, who had been unable to get his HMMWV up the hill. The road goat path that had been washed out was barely navigable by daylight -- it would indeed have been impossible in the dark during a pounding rainstorm. It later turned out that we were the only team that hadn't been able to get off its assigned hill.

In hindsight, it was good training.

I figure everyone needs one or two nights like that during their lifetimes.

Posted by Russ at 12:21 AM, May 4, 2004 in Miscellany & North Carolina

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It was excellent training, 'cause if it ain't raining, it ain't...well, you know.

We used to make up these long outstanding training scenarios for moving the IPF: freak blizzards that trigger avalanches followed by floods, etc.

Posted by: Donnah at May 4, 2004 12:35 AM

I'm guessing you didn't take a shower right away when you got back.

Just hard rains on Sunday night here in the Piedmont, with only distant thunder for us. It was interesting in that my wife had just planted some seedlings a few hours in the afternoon, so she was worried about her little plant babies surviving (seem to be OK).

Posted by: MarcV at May 4, 2004 02:32 PM

Not a lot of people know this, but the fastest recorded straight-line winds in Continental US history (Not counting tornadoes) hit here in Oregon during the Columbus Day storm of 1962:


The officially recorded hardest gusts were 179 mph, but that was before the wind destroyed the aneometers, and some locals swear to this day it hit 200 on the coast.

Even in a normal year, storms routinely reach hurricane force without anyone outside the region noticing -- not only because it's par for the course, but because we have a smaller population to be affected by it, and also because our coastline is mountainous and less vulnerable to life or property damage from storm surge.

At Cape Foulweather, where people go to storm watch, they give some interesting advice to people:

park facing into the wind, or the wind can damage your car door hinges when you open them.

Do not open more than one door at a time, or the wind will scour the car of contents.

Posted by: Brian B at May 4, 2004 02:52 PM