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A New Midwesterner Realizes He Should Take Tornadoes More Seriously

(Alan Greenblatt has been reporting for NPR.org on the tornado that devastated Joplin, Mo. A relatively new resident of the state, he shares these thoughts about learning to fear the weather.)

Not many people go out to dinner during a tornado warning. The Tex-Mex place near our house in suburban St. Louis is usually packed, but only a couple of other people were in the place when we showed up Wednesday night.

No wonder. The images from Sunday's twister in Joplin have been more than enough to make people in Missouri sit up and take notice.

You would think they'd have that effect on me. I was only just back from a reporting trip to Joplin, writing stories about people who'd lost their homes or were just starting to think about rebuilding.

The scenes there were certainly horrifying. I won't forget, among other things, seeing a woman laying out a dozen or so pieces of clothing she had managed to pull from the rubble pile that had once been her house. She spread them out in a friend's yard in hopes they would dry, racing against mold and that day's forecast for still more rain.

Plenty of people in Joplin and throughout southwestern Missouri told me over the past couple of days that they had grown blase and stopped paying attention to the frequent storm warnings before last weekend. No more. They say that from now on they'll seek shelter well ahead of time, just in case.

That feeling may not last.

But why hadn't the same sort of lesson sunk in for me by the time I got home to suburban St. Louis? We moved here last summer. Tornadoes have already done serious damage within a few miles of our house.

But as the sirens blared around our county Wednesday afternoon, I went about my business. We stayed home until the rain had mostly cleared. But I didn't race down to the basement, as I could see from their lights the neighbors had done.

It's true that our basement isn't particularly appealing. Our babysitter complained after going down to our Spartan, washer-and-dryer-and-luggage-storage-only cellar on the night of the Oscars. "We have Wii in our basement for tornado warnings," she said.

Actually, my attitude may have something to do with that night. The babysitter had woken up our 5-year-old son to take him down to our boring downstairs. A prudent precaution. But the experience clearly unsettled him. He started making lots of ominous drawings of what he called "tornado storms."

It's my responsibility as a parent to protect him from harm. But I also feel like I have a duty not to instill in him needless fears.

Obviously, fear of the weather around here isn't needless. The real issue, though, may be that I'm not a Midwesterner. Storms like this are foreign to me.

I grew up in California, less than a mile from the San Andreas Fault. You hear all your life that "the big one" is imminent, yet you never know when it's going to come. The invisible prospect of earthquakes, I think, makes you fatalistic about natural disasters.

Living along this tornado alley, I'm going to have to learn to take the real dangers here more seriously. "Be safe," people are saying to each other around here this week. Meaning, be sensible.

We'll go native by figuring out what the sensible things to do might be, in terms of prepping the basement and putting in supplies, as well as learning how seriously to take the proliferation of storm warnings.

We'll involve our son in all this, so that he can learn to feel ready and not just afraid. And, again, take him out for a burrito after everything looks clear. By the time we left, that Tex-Mex place had a line out the door.

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.