Wednesday, April 27, 2011
A couple of weeks ago my son texted me to let me know that the power was out where he is stationed, at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, and there was a tornado warning in effect. Continued texting assured me of his well-being. I checked later that evening online and saw that the area had indeed been hit by several tornadoes, and there were already photos and video footage available of the damaged areas. This morning I was tagged in a Facebook post written by a friend in Georgia, informing me that a mutual friend in Alabama had a near brush with a tornado in her neighborhood, but was okay.
Isn't modern technology amazing?
Thirty-two years ago, on April 10th, 1979, the town where I'd grown up was obliterated by a tornado.
I grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas, in the heart of "Tornado Alley". Springtime was also known as "tornado season", and everybody observed the season, regardless of one's religious affiliation. At school, tornado drills were practiced year-round, with one or more kids in each class assigned to open the windows as the rest of us filed out into the hallways to crouch down against the walls with our heads down between our knees and covered by our arms. Always done in a very orderly and neat fashion. The sirens placed around town were blood-curdlingly loud, but hearing them every year- multiple times weekly during the season- served to create apathy rather than urgency.
What follows is the result of selective memory, I'm sure, but it's all I've got.
During Spring Break from school the year that I was in 7th grade, my brother Charles and I spent the week with our Dad, half-way across town from our home with Mom. I actually don't remember anything about that day until we were watching the urgent weather report on TV. The local station was tracking a storm that was headed our way and the anchorman grew increasingly agitated. We knew Dad was on his way home from work and would arrive at any minute. When he did arrive the sky had grown dark and the anchorman was suddenly reporting that the funnel was on the ground and headed for us. He began yelling for everyone to take cover right as the signal cut out and the screen went to snow. We looked out the front window of Dad's second-floor apartment and couldn't see anything but dark sky in front of us. Tornadoes were also referred to as funnel clouds because the tapered to a point, yet what we were looking at was a sky full of black, moving, twisting storm.
An F5* tornado was bearing down on us.
Dad got us into his bedroom, closed the door, put us onto the floor between the bed and an interior wall, and pulled his mattress on top of us. Everyone who has heard a tornado describes the sound as a freight train, a herd of buffalo, anything overwhelmingly loud and frightening. I cannot now describe what I heard, but those descriptions come awfully close, and I've never heard the like since. Sensations of shaking and moving, breaking, crushing, ripping, smashing, and sucking wind all swirl together in my memory. Hanging on as tightly as possible to one another, Dad, Charles and I waited until it was over.
When we crawled out from under the mattress the bedroom was intact. I remember Dad going to the window, which was completely shattered, with the web of broken glass still in the frame. My shoes were on the floor at the foot of the bed where I'd left them earlier in the day, and I shook some glass out of them before putting them on. Then Dad opened the bedroom door. The living room was, well, gone. It was completely open to the sky, covered with debris from neighboring (?) buildings, and with a couple of walls standing. We picked our way carefully across to the front door, hoping the stairs were navigable. They were, and we got to the ground floor.
Dad's parents lived a couple of blocks away, so we sent us to make the familiar walk to their house as he went immediately to begin pulling survivors from the wreckage. The route was almost unrecognizable with the landmarks scrambled in heaps or simply gone. Live wires danced in the street and whole buildings were pancaked in a neighboring apartment complex. People were wandering around, dazed, not believing what they were seeing. We got to Grandfather and Grandmommy's house, and I now realize that what we found could have been devastating. Mercifully, they were alive and well, and their house was still there. The houses on either side of theirs were gone, but theirs was mostly intact. Not only was my grandparents' house fine, but the two Cadillacs which sat in their open carport were untouched!
Mom had been at home alone when the tornado hit. Our home was on the extreme western edge of town, with only the football stadium and the middle school between us and "miles and miles of miles and miles". Mom had been on the phone with her sister Cathey when the sirens were going off. Back then the phone was attached to the wall and the handset was attached to the base by a long curly cord. As Mom watched our playhouse and the backyard fence blow away, Cathey was urging Mom to take cover. Mom told her that she'd "be right back", set the phone down on the kitchen counter, and went to stand in the hallway bathroom tub with our dog- with the door open. (Evidently imminent tornado danger is trumped by severe claustrophobia.) After watching stuff fly up and down the hallway she returned to the phone once the storm passed, only to find the line dead and a metal post speared through the wall right where she'd been standing only moments before.
Tornadoes normally skip around from one target to the next, so Mom had no reason to suspect that we'd also gone through it with Dad. This was a mercy and certainly spared her much anguish since there was no way to contact us. Her family, on the other hand, knew for certain that our home had been hit, and had no way to call her. As my mother tells the story, the National Guard had already secured the neighborhood by the time my Grandaddy and Grandmom were able to get across town to find their daughter. When they approached one entrance to the neighborhood they were told to turn back because, "There's nobody left in there alive". My Grandaddy said, "I'll be back, and I'll bring you back somebody alive." Taking Grandmom home, Grandaddy got his gun, his neighbor, Mr. White, and returned to find Mom. When he did find her alive he asked, "Where are the babies?" meaning my brother and me. Mom told him that we were with Dad at the French Quarter apartments. Grandaddy went to the National Guardsman on the corner to ask what the news was for that particular area and was told, "Wiped out." He didn't tell Mom. It took them 5 hours to get back to his home, by which time Dad had gotten us there, safe and sound.
As I prepared to write this, I looked up the rating system for tornadoes in order to inform myself. The Fujita Scale which was developed to measure tornadoes considers damage as well as wind speed. Evidently there is some disagreement whether the tornado I experienced was an F4 or F5, as the determination can be somewhat subjective. They may measure damage levels, but somehow there's no mention of straw driven through telephone poles or pink insulation and bits of debris being found inside sealed bottles of Coca-Cola. (yup- true) And yet I was sobered as I read the website's discussion on this point when I came across this sentence, "The Seymour tornado was in the same family as the devastating Wichita Falls, Texas tornado, which remains as of this writing, the most damaging in US history." (emphasis mine)
That would be my tornado.
There's even a youtube video- Terrible Tuesday.
Many years have passed since that day. Wichita Falls has been rebuilt, mostly. Mom, Charles, and I moved to San Antonio the next year because Mom could no longer bear the sound of the sirens in the spring. I've moved away from Texas entirely, gotten married, had a family, and experienced and learned so many new things. In Pennsylvania the volunteer fire departments employ the very same sirens to call out help when a fire is called in; it took a few years for me to hear them without my hair standing on end. I've lived through hurricanes in Florida, which, frankly, I'll take over a tornado any day. Hearing all the news of tornadoes this year has sparked memories. Though my tornado remains a record-holder, the rating on the Fujita Scale doesn't matter a whit if your house is leveled or if you lose loved ones.
May God have mercy. Stay safe everyone.
[There is some disagreement as to whether our storm was an F4 or an F5- some of the damage suggests the larger.]