Editor’s Note: Gianficaro is a columnist with The Intelligencer of Doylestown, which originally published this piece. His mother lives in Pittston.
After a tornado tore through the northeastern Pennsylvania region where I grew up and I was unable to immediately reach my octogenarian mom by phone, I worried.
Day breaks on Thursday. Roll out of bed. Brush teeth, shower, shave. Reacquaint Mrs. Folger with Mr. Coffee, my favorite morning couple. Fire up the laptop. Oops, left my smartphone on a bedroom table. Race back up the stairs, race back down. Crap! Forgot my eyeglasses on the nightstand. Race back up, race back down. Hmm. Maybe I can skip the gym today … puff, puff, gasp, gasp … maybe not.
Then I saw the text:
“Uncle Phil, have you talked to grandma? I can’t get through. Heard bad tornadoes there.”
What? The alert took my breath away. It was our nephew in Colorado. Time of text: Wednesday, 11:45 p.m., 15 minutes after I had fallen asleep.
The distance between my 86-year-old mom in northeastern Pennsylvania and me is about 100 miles. But there are moments, like reading that text, that leave me fraught with the most unimaginable type of worry, and stretch those miles to millions.
I punch up mom’s phone number. It rings and rings. No answer. Call her cellphone. Again, it rings, no answer. My heart races as if I’d rushed up and down those stairs a million times. My heart races, my mind follows.
I Google searched “northeastern Pennsylvania and tornadoes.” I misspelled both the state and the force of nature in my frantic state. I retyped. I saw photos of buildings in Wilkes-Barre Township, Luzerne County, obliterated by a tornado late Wednesday night. Businesses, many of which I’ve frequented, looked like they were fed through a shredder. Roofs torn away. Windows on store fronts blown out. Large U-Haul trucks jack-knifed or knocked onto their roof or side. Trees toppled, and power lines downed. County officials would later report concrete blocks from buildings were located a quarter of a mile away, and pieces of trucks were thrown a great distance. Nature in a bad mood.
What I didn’t know as I tried to reach mom was how wide a path of destruction the tornado or tornadoes might have caused. Last year, an EF-2 rated tornado blew right past her town. It generated a top wind speed of 120 mph, had a maximum width of 500 yards, and traveled nearly 13 miles. She was unaffected, but that data illustrates the expanse a tornado can bring. She lives only 20 minutes from Wilkes-Barre. I call her house phone again. It rings and rings. It goes to voicemail. C’mon, answer, answer. My heart races faster. I call her name, ask her to pick up if she’s there. She does. I’m out of breath.
“I’m OK,” she said. “It missed us this time, but Wilkes-Barre got hit pretty bad. Thank God nobody was killed.”
Mom told me she heard the tornado was coming, that she was prepared. She said she locked the front door and had plenty of bottled water.
So I worry.
When I lived back home, tornadoes weren’t a concern; river flooding was. Two major ones occurred in the 1970s, and there were a few subsequent minor ones, but neither affected our town, which rests in the valley, but also on high ground from the Susquehanna River. However, in recent years, tornadoes have become more common there. Luckily, mom was unaffected each time.
Remember, she probably had the front door locked.
So I worry.