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The Worst Storms I Remember – Dave Spencer’s Top Five

I don’t remember very many really bad storms as a child. We’d have tornado warnings and the sirens would sound. That would frighten the life out of me, but then we’d head over to my grandmother’s house and go down into her basement and then nothing would materialize. And when I was kid, I LOVED snowstorms. But I’m all grown up now. And I have grown-up attitudes about some of these nasty storms. In a nutshell, I’m not a fan. Here now are the worst storms I can remember:

1. 2009 Ice Storm

noaa.gov

This is the most debilitating storm I have ever experienced. To be honest, I only lost my electricity for 24 hours. But it’s the way in which this storm simply shut down better than one half of an entire state that makes it the worst storm I can ever remember. It arrived from the southwest on January 26th, 2009 and seemed fairly harmless at first, despite the warnings that preceded it. It’s just that it came so quietly. I had come back to the radio station to finish up some work. The rain had already started. You could barely hear it. I guess when it’s freezing rain, it’s just much quieter. But it wasn’t very long before the cars, the parking lot, the streets, everything had a shiny glaze that was spelling disaster as it accumulated. As the evening wore on and the ice coating got thicker, the city of Owensboro began losing power at a fairly rapid rate. It was so creepy the way the transformers would blow and send an ominous blue glow into the sky. I remember how eerily quiet it was as I walked across the parking lot to the transmitter building where I needed to fire up the old generator. I mean it was deathly still, except for the sound of those transformers followed by the cracking of large limbs under the weight of the ice. I imagined some of the noises I was hearing came from all the way across town and were just echoing off the ice which, by now, had coated everything in the county and, for the most part, the entire tri-state area. It felt like a horror movie; I didn’t like the darkness, not in this situation. And I wasn’t sure how long our generator would last. It would eventually need more gas, but how would we get it? The next day was the beginning of a long ordeal for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. Folks began to realize that the power likely wasn’t coming back anytime soon. The various utility cooperatives were working diligently to restore electricity, but the damage was extensive. A windstorm is one thing; heavy tree boughs breaking and destroying power lines and bringing down poles is quite another. And then there was the death toll. It rose to 55 nationally with Kentucky being the hardest hit among all the states affected by this catastrophic winter nightmare. All in all, 24 lost their lives in the Commonwealth. And it would be nearly a month before everyone had electricity in their homes again. It was not just the physical toll taken, but the mental one as well that made this the ugliest meteorological experience in my lifetime. Unfortunately, it was far worse for many others.

2. Tornadoes of 2000 and 2007

Courtesy of Rick Shanklin, NWS Paducah via noaa.gov

Owensboro had to wait until the new millennium before it experienced its worst encounters with tornadoes. And it didn’t take long for the city to get that first one under its belt. We had just gotten used to the fact that the Y2K scare was simply that. Computers didn’t crash; governments kept running; all was right with the world. But then January 3rd, 2000 arrived. Since New Year’s Day had been Saturday, this particular Monday was the holiday. When I went outside that morning, I was surprised at how comfortable it was. I even wore sandals. But then it dawned on me—I’m wearing sandals and shorts on January 3rd. This might not be cause for celebration after all. And it wasn’t. Once the tornado watches were issued, it all made sense. One should never be completely at ease when the temperatures are in the mid-70s on the third day of January. As I ran a few errands, the winds began blowing a bit more intensely. And I figured I better wrap it up and make my way to the radio station. And just as I had made that decision, the warning was issued for Daviess County. As it turned out, I was just beneath a civil defense siren as it blared. Now, we had had warnings for the county before and the storms either did very little damage or never touched the ground at all. But that would not be the case this time.  This massive F3 tornado blew into Owensboro, again from the southwest, and ripped neighborhoods around Apollo High School and Tamarack Road to shreds. It’s as close as I’ve ever been to a twister; it roared right past the WBKR studio on its way toward what used to be Winn-Dixie where it tore down a wall. It then headed up 25th Street and through Rose Hill Cemetery where many trees were toppled. It kept moving through Trinity Hills and then exited the city at the northeast end—but not before destroying some 100 homes and damaging hundreds more and weaving a path of destruction the likes of which this city had never seen before…but unfortunately would see again, and just seven years later. In October of 2007, another tornado laid waste to certain parts of the city. This time, it was the downtown area that sustained the greatest damage. Like the one in 2000, the 2007 twister had come through Providence before landing in Owensboro. And I do mean “landing.” This one bounced. And on the occasions when it hit the ground it took out the Budget Inn; the old building that housed Martin’s Bar—a legendary Owensboro hangout; and most all of the top half of Third Baptist Church’s auditorium. Only Third Baptist—after massive and lengthy repair work—still stands today. The greatest gift to emerge from these two monster storms was the absence of life-threatening injury.  These two storms, in such a relatively short time span, are the reason we are all a little more vigilant with regards to the threat of severe weather. It’s as it should be.

3. 1997 and 2011 Floods

Photo by Joe Lowe

March 7, 1997 was an unbelievably busy day. All of us at WBKR were preparing for the big Reba McEntire/Brooks & Dunn concert at Roberts Stadium in Evansville. We were getting the vehicles ready to set up at one of the stadium gates. And we were having to deal with rain, which had started that morning. This enormous system had moved into the area and was sitting on top of us. And I do mean sitting. It just wouldn’t move. The odd thing was that the rain never reached severe levels. It was just torrential and relentless. So we got to Roberts that afternoon and stood outside to greet fans as they arrived for the concert. Umbrellas were everywhere, but they did little good. We were all soaked because of the way the rain was not only falling, but blowing. When we got inside and went to a meet and greet with Reba and Brooks & Dunn, we were drenched. In fact, they took some time to chat with us a bit and that’s all we talked about. It’s kind of funny; you get to meet these superstars but all you do is talk about the weather. Anyway, when the concert was over, my sister called me at the stadium to inform me we might have trouble getting back into Owensboro. And I said, “Well, we’re getting back into Owensboro, come hell or high water.” Turns out, it was the latter. By the time we got back into town, the water was covering 1st Street.; we could see it from the blue bridge. The next day, when it was possible to see everything, all any of us could see over most of the county was water. At the south edge of town, you could stand in the Applebee’s parking lot and see what looked like one of the Great Lakes. Homes were flooded. Many country roads and highways were impassable. For the better part of a week, Owensboro felt a little isolated. Travelling out of town took some planning if you were doing it that week. The parkways were fine, but if you ventured away from them, you were in a little trouble. What’s amazing to me is that all that rain came within a 24 hour period. That’s quite a different picture than the one we witnessed back in April. While the 2011 flood didn’t rise to the same level of severity as the ’97 flood, it seemed to feel worse. And that’s because the rains for this latest flooding disaster came at us in waves over a period of several days. And it wasn’t just showers; these rains were packing a punch. We had six consecutive days during which we experienced severe weather of varying degrees. There were tornado warnings involved. In the end, we were all exhausted. I remember watching News25 Chief Meteorologist Wayne Hart tell anchor Brad Byrd that in all his time at 25, he’d never seen this kind of rapid-fire severe weather activity. Neither had I. And, needless to say, I’m good to go for a while.

4. 1994 Snowstorm

Courtesy of flickr user bsabarnowl

On the evening of January 16th, 1994, I joined some friends for dinner. Afterward, we put in a movie. I knew that there was snow in the forecast for that night, but it wasn’t anything I was too concerned about and it wasn’t really supposed to get going until after I would get home. Well, I was wrong. When the movie had finished, and I was leaving, we opened the front door to find what appeared to be 6 or 7 inches of snow on the ground. And it was still falling at a very steady and rapid clip. My car—a 1985 Chevy Citation—looked like an igloo. Citations kind of did anyway, but when covered with snow, even more so. We got the snow off and the car started. But to get back out onto the highway, I had to go up a hill. And I couldn’t do it. So I was stuck. And I spent the night. The next morning, we all awoke to a massive blanket of white that was 17 inches deep. One way I remember this particular snowstorm so well is that it happened the same day as that big Los Angeles earthquake. I’ve always associated the two. So my plans were made for the day. I would spend the entire day and night at a friend’s house. I was unable to get to work. I got a little stir crazy, but had to get over it. My car was so covered in snow, you couldn’t see any part of it. It looked like some really fancy and creative Christmas lawn decoration. The temperatures the rest of that week didn’t do us any favors. It took several days for them to rise high enough to even begin to make a dent in melting off this gargantuan amount of snow. I eventually did get back to work, but I slept there. It was just easier. Didn’t really trust the old Citation to navigate what it would have had to navigate. So for nearly seven days, Owensboro was largely immobile. I remember other big snowstorms—before and since. But none of the others made me feel as trapped as the one in ’94.

5. 2008 Hurricane

Courtesy of flickr user CoreBurn

Call it morbid curiosity, but I’ve always wondered what it would be like to experience a hurricane. I just thought I’d have to be on a coast to do it. Silly me. All I had to do was be in Owensboro on the morning of September 14, 2008. I’m including this bizarre weather occurrence here because of the unlikelihood of such an event happening in Kentucky. A hurricane, for Pete’s sake.  Well, for Ike’s sake. Yes, it was Hurricane Ike that blew through the Barbecue Capitol of the World and surprised a great many people on what would have otherwise been a sleepy Sunday morning. I don’t expect parishioners attending services ever expected anything like this to happen outside their church windows during the sermon. Isn’t it incredible that a storm that began in Africa had such an enormous effect on Owensboro, Kentucky? Of course the damage done by Ike to the Caribbean, Louisiana, and Texas was far more devastating. But the storm was still packing hurricane-force winds when it made its way into the Ohio Valley. And it did enough damage here and throughout the rest of Kentucky, that Governor Steve Beshear declared a state of emergency for some areas. I’ll never forget that morning. I remember waking up because it suddenly got really hot in my bedroom. That was a result of the electricity being knocked out by the hurricane, so no air conditioning. Just after I awakened I got a frantic phone call from my sister. She said, “Go outside, we’re having a hurricane!” What a way to greet the day. Sure enough, heavy objects were flying through the air. Trees were bent over much farther than I had ever seen them bend. I jumped in my car and headed over to my mom’s house to see if she was okay. While driving up Tamarack, a squirrel slammed into my windshield. Scared me to death. Limbs were blowing everywhere. Garbage totes were racing down streets competing with  traffic. Emergency vehicles were scurrying trying to keep up with an escalating number of calls. What in the world? We’ve pretty much gotten used to tornado warnings and snowstorms. While they are certainly not welcome, we can relate. But a hurricane?  In Owensboro, Kentucky? I can’t help but wonder, what’s next?

Actually, don’t answer that.

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