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Local History

Ozarks Storms Aren’t Like They Used To Be

via Flickr, Creative Commons

In this segment of These Ozarks hills, storyteller and Ozarks native Marideth Sisco reflects on tornadic Ozarks storms past, present and future after this week’s outbreak on Tuesday.

You can listen to the essay by clicking the “Play” button below.

This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. I was going to start this piece by saying finally Spring has arrived and seems to be sticking. Not swooning and falling back into February, not plunging headlong into July. I swear it’s been getting so iffy that last year, I counted only three days that I didn’t have to turn on either the furnace or the AC. A few days it was both!

But then Tuesday arrived, and I had to get serious.

It goes without saying that living where we live, in the area of the country we call Tornado Alley, we could have seen this coming. But, even having been warned, what does one do?

This week the Ozarks joined an ever-expanding club of those to whom weather became more than just a forecast of prospects for weekend outings. We know what we’ll be doing this weekend – cleaning up the leavings of a tornado outbreak, for which there is never such a thing as adequate preparations.

But, we do what we can - we heed the warnings, we change the batteries in the weather radios when we swap out the ones in the smoke alarms, we might check our emergency kit and update the supplies. Of course, the old ones pay particular note to messages from aching joints, we watch the trees and notice when the leaves appear to be bottom side up. That’s when we begin to sniff the air for the scent of ozone, which actually smells like rain, and we listen to the song of the tree frogs to see if they’re calling the rain. They do that, you know.

Some who know the art of such things have cut a straight twig and part of the branch to which it’s attached, peeled it and nailed it up in a sheltered spot under the roof where, it is said, the twig will curl up or down, according to air pressure and humidity and let you know what’s coming. 

Now that kind of forecasting takes some serious skill along with considerable intuitive powers. And I don’t have those. We have had our share of weather witches down through the years in these Ozarks highlands. Many are locally famous, some even reliable. I remember when I was a child; the premier professional forecaster in this area was a fellow by the names of C.C. Williford. He was an actual meteorologist, one of the early ones, who broadcast his prognostications via KWTO, that heritage AM radio station in Springfield. At the time, it was the only station with enough power to reach out to the deep hollows out south and east and all around. So, he had quite a reputation, one he was then forced to live up to, of course. And naturally he took his job very seriously. But, he also had kind of an impish sense of humor which gave him license to take himself a little less seriously at times, to the point of poking fun at himself. 

My favorite story was one that C.C. told on himself, regarding a fellow who was said to be living down in the hills around Stone County or somewhere, who was reputed to be able to use natural signs to predict the weather, with an astounding accuracy rate of somewhere above 90%. 

“Well,” C.C. said, “this is something I’ve gotta see. And if he’s the real thing, maybe he’ll share with me some of his secrets.”

So, he drove down into the hills intent on finding the guy. And after several attempts and several miles on those narrow snaky roads, he found him.

“I hear you’ve got a real talent for predicting the weather,” he said to the man, who was quite elderly and somewhat feeble. 

The man nodded. “That’s what they say, I reckon,” the old man replied.

“Well, could you tell me how you do it,” the weatherman asked. “I mean, do you read the clouds, or count the crickets, something like that?”

“No,” the man said. “Nothing like that.”

“Then do you listen to the tree frogs?”

The old man shook his head and smiled.

“Well then, would you mind telling me what is your secret,” Williford said.

“Oh heck,” the old man said. “I don’t have a secret. I just listen to whatever that fool on the radio says, and I say the opposite.”

So much for weather signs. Of course, the prognosticators have much better tools now, and they’re way more accurate, whether we believe them or not. They were already issuing bulletin after bulletin on Monday about the likelihood of severe weather, even though the actual weather at that point was still just a skiff of clouds out in New Mexico. I was thinking the whole thing was a little overblown, until I checked my weather app about noon Tuesday and saw that everything west of the Kansas line was the bright red they reserve for tornado watches. And they weren’t kidding. Like lots of others, I got the message, and I got my outside chores done, and put some things away. And I’m glad I did. We really took a hit on the nose. I got no appreciable damage here, but spent an hour in the basement while a funnel cloud decided to leap the ridge and go north of me. But I feared for my neighbors near and far the whole afternoon, and remembered back some 30 odd years to when a tornado struck my tiny home town in Barry County. Another struck just 10 miles from there this week in another little Ozarks village. When the Butterfield tornado struck, I spent an anxious couple of hours worrying over the fates of all my childhood friends and family. But, you know I had been gone from there nearly 30 years by then, and I soon realized that everyone I was worried about was safe and sound, up on the hill at the Mount Pleasant cemetery. This time it was worse, worrying about all those still living here. I’m grateful to God that this time we only lost things that can be replaced.

But, I’m afraid we haven’t see the end of it. 

So let me end this piece with a further caution: this is not the time to lower your guard. Pay attention. Our seasons really aren’t like they used to be. They’re worse. And even if that were not so, we should remember that one study voted Springfield the city with the most changeable and unstable weather in the whole United States. And that goes for the whole Ozarks Plateau, from the old mines country over by Joplin to the Brixey Triangle out east. So please, keep your eyes open and your head down all the way into summer in these Ozarks Hills. Treacherous weather and all, it’s still one of the most beautiful places on earth.