By Jimmie Kaska - @jimmiekaska
July 17, 2010: Lights flickered above my head. Winds howled and slammed the doors of the press box. The hail on the metal roof clanged away like a jackhammer as I sat in my folding chair, straining to hold a microphone over the top of four people discussing what to do about the football game that, until five minutes prior, was heading towards a rout for the Chippewa Valley Predators.
"We can't go on like this," said the head referee, water soaking through his black-and-white polo shirt, his white hat soaked and dripping on the floor from his left hand. Using his right hand, he gestured towards the windows, which were impossible to see through. "Even if it lets up, we have to wait until a half hour after the warnings clear."
SLAM! The press box door violently swung open and back shut, causing all five of us occupying the room to jump. In addition to the head official, the game's scorekeeper and public address announcer lingered nearby, along with the coaches from the Predators and the South Metro Dragons.
"There's no time to reschedule," said the Dragons coach. It was the last weekend of the regular season for the Northern Elite Football League, with the playoffs to begin the following Saturday. He cited various reasons against playing the game on Sunday, preferring to call the contest.
Lightning cracked outside. Water started to seep in from both the floor and ceiling, as the deluge outside found its way inwards. In the moment, I flipped over a trash can and took the empty bag out of it, and placed it over the top of my still-active radio gear. Sirens blared in the distance as I updated the situation: Predators 21, Dragons 7, early second quarter: A tornado had been spotted nearby, and we were in a lightning delay. During the delay, Minnetonka, Minnesota (the site of the game) went under a tornado warning.
It was an important contest in the context of the adult amateur football league's season. A Predators win would make them 7-1 and the #1 seed for the playoffs; a Dragons win would give them a home playoff game (and valuable revenue) in the NEFL's other division. Neither team could afford to lose. So, the discussion in the moment was a tense one.
The players had all been evacuated to the nearby high school already to wait out the storm. Only five people remained a football field away from the entrance to the locker rooms: the five people still in the press box, discussing whether there would be more football that night.
With one arm outstretched over the top of the press box gathering and the other covering the radio equipment from the rain coming inside, I waited for the decision. "Again, listeners, we're in a tornado warning, and the discussion now is whether or not we're going to cancel the game, replay it tomorrow, or wait it out tonight."
A crack of lightning and more slamming against the sides and top of the press box from the hail expedited the decision. The referee made his case that the game should be called off for the night. The Dragons coach didn't want to lose the home game revenue, but couldn't also risk the safety of the fans and players to stick it out for the night (or rent the venue for another day). Martin Adams, the Predators coach, finally spoke up with one simple question: "Will we still be the number one seed?"
All four of them turned to me, still straddling the folding chair and the fine line between placing a mic in their discussion and keeping my equipment from electrocuting me. I was also the league's unofficial master of stats and standings, so if anyone in that press box knew, it would be me. "If the game doesn't happen, the Predators are six and one... number one seed next week."
Coach Adams made the wrap-up motion with his hands. "We're done. Let's get back to the school." Just like that, I was alone in the press box.
I updated our listeners back in Eau Claire of the situation--a tornado had been spotted a few miles away, the game was called due to weather and wouldn't be made up, and I was signing off for the evening as we were under a tornado warning. I jokingly said during the update, it takes a real idiot to broadcast live during a tornado warning, but here I am. Right after the sign-off, I pulled the power cords, all of the gear, my notes, stats, and anything else I had, and dumped it all into the garbage bag.
By now, another five minutes had passed. The rap-rap-rap of the hail on the metal sides and roof of the press box had slowed down, so I figured it would be a good time to make a break for the school. Water had come in to the press box from multiple points, so it wasn't a place I wanted to stay much longer. I took a second to tweet an update while I hovered in the doorway, lightning striking in the distance.
As I got past the door, it flew back open with another WHAM! against the side of the press box, revealing a gushing flow of water coming down the hill and towards the bowl of the football field. I took off my flip flops, opting to make the sprint to the locker rooms barefoot. I waded through the knee high-deep water towards the school. Hail pelted the back of my head from bright orange and red skies; where the gray of the clouds met the colors, it turned an eerie shade of green.
I arrived into the doorway of the school, pausing at the doorway to look back. The press box door remained open (I had tried to close it on the way out, but the wind had pinned it to the side of the building). The sky had changed from reddish-orange to bluish-green; rain poured out of the sky and made anything hard to see from indoors. I pulled out my cell phone and started snapping pictures. No tornado, I thought. No big deal.
Mostly, I had worried about the lightning striking the open water I was wading through on the way to the door. In hindsight, the hail was probably worse; my head and back stung from being pelted with chunks of ice. I decided to head to my car to give it a few more minutes to blow over. A few players asked about the outcome of the game on the way. "No game," I'd answer. "Predators and Dragons keep their records going into the playoffs next week."
My phone beeped and I flipped it open (yes, a flip phone) and got a sight of what had passed very close to where I had just been sitting.
Photo: A funnel cloud appears near Minnetonka, Minnesota on July 17, 2010, while I was calling a semi-pro football game on the radio
My photos show the weirdly-colored sky (you can see the different colors in the picture here). I had done a live broadcast during an actual tornado that missed my vantage point by a few thousand feet, and stayed on until the exact moment when broadcast was no longer possible.
* * * * *
Less than two years later, a tornado warning was issued for the west side of Eau Claire. As the only person in the building in the afternoon to handle the severe weather reports, I hunkered down in the news booth and began reading off the warnings and watches for the area, as I had done a hundred times before. A loud CRACK outside, and a POP from the power going out, interrupted my updated on what was happening right where I was sitting: radar-indicated tornado prompting a warning for the west side of Eau Claire, where our radio station was at.
I looked outside and saw what had actually happened.
While it wasn't a tornado, a "micro-burst" hit the hill above the radio station, knocking over several houses and trees, and also our broadcast tower, which linked up seven different radio stations to our home base in downtown Eau Claire.
Twice in a few years, I was on the air during a tornado warning, and both times, had stories to share!
* * * * *
Why share this?
One: severe weather is no joke. That's why broadcast stations spend so many resources covering it: to warn the public and get people to safety.
Two: sometimes in radio, it's more than simply talking into a microphone.
And, three: I've never won awards for anything in broadcasting, so these are the best stories I've got.
I was sort of inspired to do this after my sister lost her house and truck to a tornado in northern Wisconsin on Tuesday (she's all good! No injuries), because we're due for a batch of storms tonight in my new town in southern Wisconsin.
Be safe out there, and don't try this at home!