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Natural Perspectives: A close call with tornadoes, storms, hail

May 11, 2011|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray

Vic and I are back from our trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with the Photographic Society of Orange County. Due to Vic's teaching schedule, he arrived April 28, a day after I did.

The good news is that we survived. The bad news is that it was close. I arrived in Nashville on April 27, which was the day of the main tornado outbreak that killed so many people in the Southeast.

I had been worried about flying during the thunderstorms that were forecast for the area. But other than a lot of bumpiness that caused a few people to scream during the descent, the flight was fine. I thought the worst was over once we were on the ground, but I was wrong. For five of us shutterbugs, the real adventure was still ahead of us.

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By now, everyone has heard about the outbreak of tornadoes that hit the Southeast during April 25 to 28. Most of them touched down in Georgia and Alabama, causing many billions of dollars of destruction and taking the lives of an estimated 340 people. In Tennessee, 31 people died. In comparison to loss of life and such extensive property damage, we got off lightly.

Mark Singer and I planned to fly into Nashville, rent a car and drive to the tiny town of Townsend near Knoxville. Stefan Steinberg, Lea Reynolds and Wendy Hill wanted to carpool with us, so Mark rented a Dodge Caravan that would hold us all. We were driving through the little town of Alcoa south of Knoxville when the rain got even heavier. Then it started to hail.

At first, the hail was small. Then it was the size of peas, then dimes, then quarters. The hail fell with a fury that I had never experienced. The sound of hail on the roof of the car was deafening, even painful. I put my hands over my ears to try to muffle the sound.

On at least two occasions, the hail was so thick that there was a complete whiteout. Mark had to pull over because he couldn't see beyond the hood of the car. I watched for the white line on the highway on my side of the car, which was the only way we could tell that we were still on the road. We all worried that someone coming from behind would hit us from the rear or that we'd run into something in front of us. We were afraid to move forward and afraid to stay still.

We hoped that the windshield wouldn't crash inward. The roof and windows of the car were all that stood between those big balls of ice and our heads. By then, the hail had grown to the size of golf balls.

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