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'D.C. Tornado,' Ready to Wipe [Your Town] Off the Map!

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007

Little boys play a sandbox game called "What If."

It goes like this: Put Mattel cars in "streets." Use bits of cardboard for "houses." Get big bucket of water.

Add "Calvin and Hobbes" type narration.

"It was a peaceful day in Las Vegas. Men smoked. Women drank. Children gambled. But what if . . . [cue bucket] the HOOVER DAM EXPLODES! DEATH AND DESTRUCTION OBLITERATE SODOM!! OH THE HUMANITY!"

It's with this sort of enthusiasm -- and just about the same special effects skills -- that the Weather Channel unleashes "It Could Happen Tomorrow: Washington, D.C. Tornado," tonight at 9:30.

It's just great.

In the show, a Category 4 tornado, apparently with an appetite for tourists and lawmakers, comes straight up the Mall at 5 p.m. on a Friday. It goes right through the Washington Monument, between the museums and smack into the Capitol dome! It picks up a tourist van on Constitution Avenue, the one driving 11 mph with his left blinker on for eternity, and flings it out to Largo!

Is this great television or what?

If you're not familiar with this brand of weather porn, "It Could Happen Tomorrow" is a series in which the Weather Channel goes around destroying large parts of the United States. It's pretty ghoulish, if you think about it, but there's some sort of irresistible rubbernecking quality to watching what-if scenarios of a major Category 3 hurricane hitting Manhattan, or an 8.0 earthquake wiping out San Francisco.

Pat Robertson would have a field day deciding who did what to deserve such wrath!

The Weather Channel people tend to favor twisters (Dallas and Chicago get blasted, too), and now it's Washington's turn.

The show uses the devastating F-5 tornado that hit La Plata in 2002 as the model for the plausibility of a D.C. tornado. The La Plata twister was one of the strongest recorded for much of the East Coast, with 260 mph winds. It killed five people and devastated the town. Helpful weather types, such as Topper Shutt from local CBS affiliate WUSA (Channel 9), and Greg Romano of the National Weather Service, do a fine job of telling us how tornados form, how forecasters spot them and how winds wreak such devastation.

But -- and here's where the "what if" comes in -- the show's narrator wonders what if a tornado about that size came right into downtown D.C. An F-4 monster, with winds about 200 mph.

Stones from the Lincoln Memorial become missiles! The Washington Monument is decapitated! The Capitol dome, sheared away! All this is shown in really cheesy special effects.

Sample comments from "storm chasers" and others on the show:

The tornado becomes "a giant meat grinder."

"The loss of life would be incredible."

"You may not have any warning until it picks up your car."

Apparently, Washington gets out of this only slightly better off than when aliens blew the White House to smithereens in "Independence Day."

Real-life documentaries of disasters are terrifying and depressing, of course, as the word "Katrina" has come to symbolize. It is an unsettling fact that we live at the mercy of the elements.

Yet make-believe disasters and horror shows remain a thriving business, because there's nothing like scaring yourself silly when there's nothing really at stake.

So, like, a really great episode would be one in which Hawaii sinks like a stone and only surfers survive: "There was this monster wave, dude, and I . . . "

Stay tuned.

It Could Happen Tomorrow: Washington, D.C. Tornado (30 minutes) airs tonight at 9:30 on the Weather Channel.

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