On Monday I was in a place I’d never been before — underneath my desk.
“The sirens have been going off,” my colleague, Chris Hunter, said as I arrived at the office just after 2 p.m. I had worked at home in the morning and hadn’t turned on the TV or radio. It had been sprinkling when I left my house just over the Bosque County line and was just beginning to rain harder when I got the office.
I turned up the volume on the scanner that we use to monitor dispatchers at the Somervell County Sheriff’s Office. One funnel cloud had been spotted above FM 56 between Glen Rose and the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant. Then we heard that another cloud with rotation had been spotted above Glen Rose Soccer Park.
Chris and I went outside our office building along U.S. Highway 67 across from the hospital and looked up at the sky.
“Those clouds are definitely rotating,” I said. There was no visible funnel from our vantage point, but the thing hovered just to the east directly above us — and it looked big. We didn’t know whether to stay put or try to flee in our cars. I’d always heard the worst place to be during a tornado is in a vehicle where you might get tossed around like a Matchbox car.
We went back inside to take cover. Trouble was, every room was against an outside wall. We crawled under the desks in my office when the sirens began sounding again. A scary minute or two passed. I said a prayer and wondered what would happen next.
But nothing happened. It looked lighter so we ventured outside. The dark mass of clouds appeared to be heading east toward Cleburne.
I grabbed my keys, hopped in my car and headed to the County Courthouse Annex so see what was going on there. A group, including comissioners Lloyd Wirt and John Curtis, had gathered in County Judge Mike Ford's office to watch the yellow, red and purple splotches on the radar map that indicated storm cells.
I’ve been through five hurricanes on the Texas coast and never experienced hail or tornadoes until I moved to North Texas. After going through some bad hailstorms in Fort Worth and the tornado that hit downtown, I’d rather take my chances in a hurricane than a tornado. With a hurricane you have several days of warning. You can choose to stay or leave. The unpredictability of a tornado is unnerving. Even if you want to leave, you can't. You've got to take cover immediately.
“You’ve sure had your share of emergency management this year,” Wirt told Ford.
Indeed, since Ford took office on Jan. 1, the county has experienced a major ice storm, a massive wildfire and now tornadoes. Not to mention been declared a disaster area because of drought. And we’re only a third into the year.
Somehow, most folks in the county walked away with minor damage and injuries — but, ironically, still not much rain.
It was no accident, however, that there weren’t more accidents.
To be sure, city, county, fire department and school district officials have grappled with their share of crises this year — some natural, some financial. How people respond during a potentially disastrous situation is contagious. If they are calm and their reactions planned and carried out in an orderly fashion, others likely will follow their lead and respond accordingly. Mayhem begets mayhem. Confidence inspires confidence.
Perhaps it’s because we live in the shadow of the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant and have to be prepared for the worst kind of emergency that our government officials and first responders show such grace under pressure. They have planned and participated in drills and mock evacuations so many times that when a dangerous situation arises, they spring into action and instinctively start going down the list of what needs to be done.
That’s not to say that there’s not room for improvement and each situation presents a learning experience about what to do better next time. But I’ve watched these folks on the front lines and have been impressed at how focused they are.
The school district has particularly been through tough times. In addition to facing the possibility of deep budget cuts, the district this weekend lost a beloved student, Hannah Fenton, who passed away Sunday after a sudden health problem. Students, teachers and parents were dealing with that tragedy when the storms approached and students had to be moved to shelter and protected until the storm passed. It made for a long and difficult day.
Still, the school board met Monday night as planned to recognize students going to state and national competitions and retiring teachers, but it did cut its meeting short out of respect of the Fenton family and all those affected.
Still more crises loom. If we can just survive the legislative session with our schools and our hospital and nursing homes intact, we might avert a financial and social crisis.
All kinds of sirens have been sounding this year. But when the going gets tough, I’m glad I live where stories of bravery happen every day — even if you don’t hear about them. Heroes are everywhere and most of them don’t wear capes. They just get the job done.