A Californian experiences extreme weather for first time

Illustration of different symbols representing the variance of weather in the bay area, including heat, rain, fog, and wildfires.
Cameron Opartkiettikul/File

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I’m not known to be a particularly lucky person. Raffles, t-shirt cannons, radio calls, random roommate selections⁠ — none of these ever seem to work out in my favor. But my fortune seemed to hit an all-time low last Monday.

The day started nice enough. I went to work, got off at five and decided to head to the beach. It was sweltering hot, and I knew the cool waters of Lake Michigan would help wash away my sweat. The first sign of trouble was when my map started going haywire and not picking up the cellular service my phone indicated I had. I was new to the area and didn’t quite know my way around yet, so I ended up taking a wrong turn and driving through a maze of a neighborhood, turning a 10-minute drive into a 40-minute one.

But fine, I get lost often. I made it to the beach eventually. Took a quick dip in the water, had a bite of the butter paneer I had picked up earlier. I made it back to my car, pulling some clothes out to change into. As I headed to the restroom, I realized I had forgotten a shirt. So I walked back, tugged on the handle and realized with horror that my keys were sitting in the passenger seat of my car.

So I called AAA. As it turns out, I don’t have an AAA membership. I called my parents and they frantically tried to figure out how to add me to their card, while my phone battery was at 21% and dropping.

I called AAA again, and they informed me that they would be there in 83 minutes, which seemed like a long time as I sat on top of the trunk of my car. The sun was lowering in the sky and the parking lot was emptying out. I heard thunder, and I saw people exiting the beach at an increasing rate. And, as it happened, the city the beach was located in was one of the most dangerous in the country.

Fearful and alone in the parking lot, I listened as the sounds of thunder drifted closer. Opening my weather app to check when it would rain, I saw the advisory that would bring my alarm to a whole new level — not only was there a heat advisory and a 100% chance of a lightning storm, there also just so happened to be a tornado advisory.

AAA luckily won that race against time, but as I finally made it into my beloved car and started driving home, I heard the apocalyptic sirens begin to sound. Tornado warning, they said, shelter indoors. It listed the areas affected, including Purdue Northwest. That’s where I’m staying! I thought.

What was I supposed to do? I was in the middle of the interstate and the storm was starting to catch up. Rain began to fall, softly at first, then harder and harder. I was 15 minutes away from my apartment, but the ominous sound of the sirens loomed in my mind and I pulled over into a gas station supermarket. And thank goodness I did.

More people started to wander in later, sheltering as I was. The sky turned a smoky yellow-gray, as if the color filter of “Mad Max” were placed over the beginning of a campy horror movie. The metal poles outside began to shake and lightning crackled through the sky.

I paced through the store, distracting myself with the colorful displays of snacks, chips, cigarettes and bumper decals. The torrential rain continued to fall in sheets, and a woman standing near me confessed that she had come inside when her car was nearly knocked off the road by the wind.

I had never really seen a thunderstorm before. So, while the weather I experienced was probably barely considered a “bad” storm, it felt cataclysmic (a metaphor, perhaps?). Plus, I’m not a great driver. The thought of going home scared me more than anything else.

But once I waited in that gas station supermarket for a solid 40 minutes, the storm began to pass. The downpour eased, the winds ceased and the yellow in the sky grew brighter. It looked like the sky after a particularly strong wildfire.

I drove home, making it back safely. My power had been knocked out, but my roommate’s LED lantern and my three-wick candle provided some light by which I could finally eat my butter paneer in peace. All’s well that ends well.

Contact Lauren von Aspen at [email protected].