It is more commonly a rite of spring: an ominous, whistling wind that appears on a far horizon amid a greenish-gray sky. Within seconds, it often wreaks unimaginable havoc.
But this was Super Tuesday, when TV screens were tuned to the ongoing winter battle among those seeking the nation's highest office. Mother Nature had other plans. Suddenly, newscasters switched from counting delegates to counting tornadoes as a swath of deadly storms rode a warm front across the South. Some polling places were forced to close early.
Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee, all Super Tuesday states, along with Kentucky and Mississippi, bore the brunt of the damage—and a death toll that exceeded 50. At Union University in Jackson, Tenn., students watched as a dorm was destroyed. Northeast of Nashville, a natural gas pumping station burst into flames after a direct hit by a tornado.
Tornadoes form when the air becomes unstable, usually as cold and warm air come into contact. Warm air near the surface begins to lift until it cools and forms huge clouds, which can reach more than 50,000 feet into the air. If an advancing cold front is coming from the west, as is typically the case in the United States, then the forces collide with a vengeance. Tornadic winds have the power to rip apart asphalt and collapse buildings in seconds.
The region did have warnings throughout the late afternoon and evening as voters headed to the polls. But the sheer breadth of the storm, visible on the radar as a drooping line reaching all the way to Florida, made it difficult for many to flee its path. In the aftermath, survivors combed ground where their houses had once stood, searching for a few mementos of their lives before tragedy struck. Others faced the prospect of burying a loved one.
The first responders, as they always do, put their own lives aside (and in danger) to rush to the rescue of others. And President Bush offered words of encouragement along with the nation's prayers.
In the end, prayers are about the only thing left after a deadly tornado.