I’ve always been slightly obsessed with tornadoes.
I spent the earliest years of my life in Hudson County, New Jersey: an ancient, industrial wilderness where smoke stacks climb high, melding pollution with clouds. Newark Bay is dotted with Maersk barges, cargo colosusses carrying drums of oil, imported automobiles, construction equipment and large quantities of steel meant to tack on more skyscrapers to an already bloated metropolis. Situated alongside a tangle of highways, railways, runways, and seaports, the toxic legacy of this wasteland was just as magical as it was noxious—a misty, gray port, an access point to new beginnings.
But it all terrified me, especially the smoke stacks. The surging structures were so large that they eclipsed the already barely visible horizon, gazing down upon my family in our silver minivan like a formidable god poised to smite us. And like any divine power, they were omnipotent, eternized by the steady, furious churning of pollutants into the air. Newark Airport, often suffused by putrid smog, was indiscernible from the vantage point of my child-locked car window during my family’s trips into the city. Expressing an innocent sense of worry, I often asked my parents how the pilots would ever be able to guide planes safely to the ground amidst the haze.
Nonetheless, I could never tear my eyes away from them. Pale, plump face pressed against the glass, I stared in wonder at the billowing smoke that rose high into the sky, offering my eyes the faintest formation of a twisting funnel. I had caught my first glimpse of a tornado.
Soon enough, my family left the industrialized landscape of Hudson County for the quiet charm and quaint green lawns of New Jersey suburbia. Despite leaving the fringes of the Financial District, my mom still traveled often for work. In order to preserve a sense of fun amidst her children’s sadness over her frequent absences, she established a tradition of bringing back small trinkets for my siblings and I whenever she went somewhere new. Upon returning from Kansas City, she brought home a “tornado in a bottle” for me: a sleek glass tube filled with water and iridescent white particles that, when shaken counterclockwise, converged to create a silvery, swirling vortex. The tiny twister threw the long length of its body with such force that its mere movement seemed enough to shatter its crystalline confines. With each violent shake, I became more and more enraptured by the angry little funnel. Set against a sealed cardboard backdrop of stormy black, complete with illustrations of confused cows and mangled trees swirling in the wind, the tornado in a bottle was both my friend and foe.
Simultaneously the stuff of my nightmares and my dreams, it became a literalized representation of everything that both scared and intrigued me. But just like the wind-spun wonders that touch down in Tornado Alley, my miniaturized cyclone’s lifespan was fleeting. In a few short moments, as the sunlight from my window drifted through the glass, the twister had all but dissolved, its energy absorbed back into the bottle. I watched as the particles slowly reached the bottom in a cloud-colored heap, my mind settling as the calamity passed. The stragglers sifted aimlessly through the bottle like floating debris, my soft and squishy, still-developing brain assigning them roles like some overzealous play director: “You there—uprooted tree! And you—totaled Honda Accord, in Obsidian Blue Pearl!”
The “tornado in a bottle” was only the beginning, and I quickly became consumed by a desire to get my hands on anything and everything tornado-related. Hours after school were spent in the furthest recesses of the children’s section at the library, a stack of meteorological books piled at my side as I scanned pages for any mention of tornadoes. Coincidentally, The Wizard of Oz soon became my favorite childhood movie. Sure, I loved the Technicolor dreamscape of the Lollipop Guild, the shimmer of Glinda’s gown, Dorothy’s ruby-red slippers, and, of course, that my own Cairn terrier, Buzz, looked just like Toto. But if I’m being honest, I’ve admittedly come to a recent realization: the reason I loved the film was not for its opulent imagery, but the beginning sequence—the sepia-toned segments of Judy Garland running frantically around a farm as a portentous cyclone looms eerily in the background. As a child, I routinely crammed the VCR version of the film into the slot of my family’s television set. My mother, who naturally assumed that the whipping wind, charred sky, and whirring tornado would traumatize any normal kindergartner, attempted to fast-forward through the clips. But I clasped her wrist in a pudgy-fingered death grip, eyes unmoving from the bright screen. Quietly, I uttered the words, “Leave it on.”
Though I’ve grown older, my infatuation with tornadoes remains. Even today, at 22 years of age, I find that my late-night internet indulgences often tend toward YouTube clips of tornadoes. Willing to watch anything that ranges in strength from F0 to F5 on the Fujita scale (a measurement system for rating tornado intensity), I don’t discriminate with the tornado content I consume. Wispy white beauties with the ropey girth of angel-hair pasta; engorged black behemoths, spanning miles across; twirling dust devils that dance across desert plains. As I sift through seemingly innumerable tabs of tornado videos, rabid with the desire to keep watching, I’m absolutely terrified. I know that a tornado will somehow come barreling through my computer screen, crush my apartment, rip neatly planted trees from the sidewalk and ultimately suck me into the depths of an inescapable black hole.
Closing my eyes isn’t any better—the image of a swirling beast, the brute force of nature descending on a peaceful prairie town, still sears my psyche. The edges of the image are black and blurred, stained with flecks of water and dirt as though I’m watching from some intimate camera angle. I hear a tornado siren pierce the airwaves with a shrill scream. I watch veins of lightning explode through a bruised sky, illuminating an enormous funnel. I shudder at the hail smacking the ground in sharp, wet thuds. The sight of the twister’s mechanical gyrations is paralyzing: a freight train steamrolls its way through fields and farms, careening toward me. I am its target, and it is mine. Seeing is believing for us both.
Why are people attracted to disaster, with both fascination and sheer fright? What primitive area of the brain ignites, so that activities and things we find enlivening, erotic, and electrifying are simultaneously understood as terrifying, daunting, and perhaps even fatal? For storm chasers, it can be any combination of reasons: photographing or recording an unfolding storm, the intangible uncertainty of how devastating the damage will be, the opportunity to form an intimate connection with the natural world, the thrilling sensation of being at the mercy of a higher being—coming as close as mortally possible to meeting God in nature.
And yet, since I was a kid, I’ve always maintained my desire to see a tornado first-hand at some point in my lifetime—the kind that comes not from a smokestack, but from the quiet collision of cold and humid air on the Great Plains. A little bucket-list morbidity, meant more obviously to witness the wonder of a natural phenomenon, but also to grapple with a certain anxiety about myself. Like the sentiment of some storm chasers, my obsession with tornadoes has always been about uncertainty. It speaks to a sense of ambivalence, an unease that I embody some great power, that lies dormant and unused. Like a tornado in a bottle, I am comforted in the knowledge that it exists, but know I will one day shake it too aggressively—my greatest fears, vices and virtues, evinced in the form of a furious funnel.
That’s the double-edged sword of a tornado. A frightening façade, a materialized representation of that which instills terror in me, is met by remarkable natural power and resilience. The tornado in The Wizard of Oz sets in motion an adventure about a group of characters who all desire, more than anything else, a quality they unknowingly already possess. There exists a tacit knowledge that the things and feelings which most evidently scare us are the very same that reveal our greatest strengths. If we withstand the deafening roar until it dies away, then life’s precarious uncertainties and miraculous moments may at last be illuminated.
From F0 to F5, I welcome life’s tornadoes with open arms.
By Gabriella Ferrigine