Eating in the Eye of the Atlanta Tornado

It was to be a momentous weekend, a reunion of three college roommates who hadn't been in the same room together for 20 years. The plan was to meet Friday afternoon at Paula's home base in Atlanta; Sarah would fly from Santa Fe, N.M., and I would jet down from D.C.

Rain was falling steadily upon my arrival at Hartsfield-Jackson airport sometime around two in the afternoon, but it would stop and start and the sun continued to peek its head out from the cloud cover, giving me reason to believe that we'd have a warm spring weekend ahead of us. After all, the dogwoods were in full bloom. What could possibly go wrong?

The Powerpuff girls on break between storms, outside Star Provisions in Atlanta.

When the three of us were finally together, zipping around town in Paula's cream-colored Mini Cooper, it was as if, as Paula had observed, only 20 minutes had elapsed since we last had seen each other. The synergy of our friendship was still very much alive and nothing -- not even a EF-2 tornado -- was going to get in the way.

Always the hostess extraordinaire, Paula whisked us to her 20th-floor apartment that she referred to as the "Sky Pad" and there we sipped on wine and caught up before heading to dinner at Floataway Café, a locally beloved oasis for its creative seasonal fare dished up in a Midsummer Night's Dream-esque dining room.

A partial view of the tornado-damaged Equitable building in downtown Atlanta. (Kim O'Donnel)

As we tucked into our shared plate of grilled chicken livers with red onion jam, the sound of pounding rain and thunder dominated the room, and Sarah and I, with a view of the windows, jumped a little when larger-than-life bolts of lightning made their presence known, but we were having way too much fun to let some silly weather ruin the evening.

By the time we climbed back into the Mini (and it occurred to me that we three were the Powerpuff Girls all grown up), the storm was over. Little did we know that a tornado had blown through town, just a few miles away. We were back at the Sky Pad for about an hour when Paula got a phone call from a relative concerned about our safety after the tornado. Tornado? What tornado? Is that what was happening in the restaurant while supping ourselves silly?

We immediately went online to learn that indeed the storm sounded like and had all the makings of a tornado, but it was too late for an official confirmation. We went to bed but were awakened about six hours later, by more of that haunted lightning cracking open the skies just after six a.m. on Saturday.

Check out the blown-out windows at the Westin Hotel in downtown Atlanta. (Kim O'Donnel)

The calls of concern came from around the country, but it wasn't until we ventured out around noon did we learn firsthand about the extensive damage and the front-page headlines the storm had generated. The sky was strangely dense and soupy, but as dutiful Powerpuff girls, we had Townsville to save (and lunch to eat).

Our fearless driver took us to the home base of the Floataway Café empire that includes chi-chi dining room Bacchanalia and the adjoining Star Provisions, the uber gourmet shop-gift and housewares emporium that had me instantly salivating. It was a combination of Dean & Deluca and Anthropologie, but ten times better. After some retail therapy, we sat outside and sampled a few goodies from the baked goods counter, contemplating our next move.

A more savory snack seemed in order, so we queued up at Taqueria del Sol for some muy bueno chips and salsa and a cerveza to wash it all down. We decided to head for Cabbagetown, an historic neighborhood that had reportedly been hit, including the home of one of Paula's yoga teachers.

The calm after the storm: Atlanta's skyline. (Kim O'Donnel)

As we approach, the sky darkens, and it begins to rain. There are emergency management trucks barricading streets where trees had fallen and residents are nervously perched on the porches of their crushed homes. We decide it's a good idea to exit the scene, and as we get to the main road, it begins to hail.


For 15 minutes.

With no visibility, we pull into a parking lot and wait out the meteorological madness. Bewildered might be the best word to describe how I was feeling. As the hail abates, I notice the sun emerging and portions of the sky turning blue. We get back on the road, which is quickly filing with water, and about two miles later, now downtown, the hail resumes. It is too weird and wooly and all we can do is howl with laughter.

When we arrive back at the Sky Pad, the building is without power, but we're feeling lucky to be safe and (relatively) sound. Eventually, we learn that a second tornado has struck, this time about an hour north of Atlanta, and that a tornado watch is in effect until 1 a.m.

But I feel comfort when there's a proper sunset at 7:45 or so, believing that the tempest has passed. For dinner, we walk just a block to a pair of restaurants, the Brazilian-infused Beleza for scrumptious cocktails made with agave nectar (and an addictive salad of farro with heirloom beans and smoked tomatoes) and its sister, Cuerno, which some are calling Atlanta's first real Spanish restaurant. We dress up for our post-storm feast, which kicks off with a tray of Spanish cured meats and cheeses, followed by tapas of shrimp and mussels, zesty salads and plenty of merriment.

Sunday morning, and everything is easy, just like the Commodores song. The sun is out, the sky is crystal blue and the temps ae in the high 60s. What a difference a day makes.

As we part ways, we hug tightly and pledge to not let another 20 years pass before another Powerpuff council meeting. As for the weather, well, it made for not a momentous reunion, but an unforgettable one.

Have you ever had a wacky weather experience while traveling? Share in the comments area. Points if good food and drink were involved.

By Kim ODonnel |  March 17, 2008; 11:23 AM ET Travel
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Hello Kim

I spent quite a lot of time in Dharamsala in the '70s and '80s, staying in a hotel just a few hundred yards from Kundun's compound. I remember a truly amazing 24-hour storm, incessant thunder, lightning, rain rain rain, the cloudburst variety, AND golfball sized hail which left a thick carpet on the ground. I was really glad to be staying in a building with a corrugated metal roof (the Bhagsu, owned by state-owned Himachal Tourism Corp). And on another trip there was an earthquake, a big one, lots of buildings damaged or destroyed. (Dharamsala is notorious for earthquakes. There was, the historical record tells us, a really bad one in 1905 which flattened all the buildings.)

Posted by: David Lewiston | March 17, 2008 2:10 PM

No food involved in this story, just a hurricane and tornado when I was in San Antonio. (Though I did try some great food while I lived there.) I actually did know there was a hurricane happening, but being from the NW, I had no idea what a tornado watch or tornado warning was--so I set out to walk 5 blocks to work. I brought an extra uniform, everything from shoes to underwear, since it looked like it was raining pretty hard. I only walked about 2 blocks before someone stopped and ordered me into their car. When we arrived at the hospital I learned that we were in lock down and no one was allowed to go outside. Only then did I figure out what those warnings on the TV meant. The base a few miles away sustained millions of dollars in damages from tornados--I was lucky.

I'm glad you were lucky, too, Kim. I'm not sure even the Powerpuff girls can stand up to a tornado.

Posted by: seattle cooking mom | March 17, 2008 2:19 PM

I had planned a hurricane party for Isabel -- I was in a play and we knew that opening night was getting canceled so I told the cast to gather at my house to eat all the clams in my freezer, and anything else I could make.

I got home to find my power had gone out before the storm and stayed off, and the clams were sticking their tongues out at me.

I made a couple phone calls, threw the taunting clams away, scooped up my blender, some cans of juice and bottles of rum and moved the party to another neighborhood that had power.

Posted by: ncc | March 17, 2008 4:32 PM

Taqueria Del Sol has the best guac and fish tacos in the ATL. Why can't we have an outpost here in the District? I miss it. Alot.

Posted by: MG | March 17, 2008 5:55 PM

Floataway Cafe is my favorite restaurant in always, your taste is impeccable!

Posted by: SF | March 18, 2008 10:16 AM

It wasn't exactly weather...but my husband and I weathered an earthquake in Hawaii in October 2006. We were on the 13th floor of a hotel....lots of swaying and no electricity (read: no elevators!). And would you believe no emergency lighting in the stairwells! But to the food! With no electricity in all of Honolulu for a day and a half, we survived on Wonder Bread, lunchmeat, pototo chips, beer and wine! (we were able to get into a store, led by a clerk with a flashlight). So much for adventurous dining on vacation! But, you know, even bologna and white bread taste pretty good when eating it on a lanai with a view of the Pacific Ocean and palm trees.

Posted by: CH | March 18, 2008 12:43 PM

I experienced a small earthquake in Guatemala when I was vacationing. I have to admit that I was asleep and it sort of woke me up but not enough to understand what was really happening.

The next morning I found out that I had basically slept through a minor earthquake. All I could think was...well that explains why I thought the bed was moving.

Posted by: Billie | March 19, 2008 12:11 PM

On a colder note-We were vacationing a few years ago in Sedona, AZ in February. The weather was nice, so we decided to drive to the Grand Canyon, a leisurely 2 hour jaunt. About noon it began snowing, really snowing! We departed. It took us 7 hours of anxious driving to get back to Sedona. On the news the next A.M: Sedona 3"snow; Flagstaff 17'; S. Rim of Grand Canyon 31 " with all access closed..

Posted by: Paul Corsa | March 30, 2008 11:41 AM

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