Tornado season is in full swing! tornadoes are part of life in the U.S., especially for those living in the Midwest or the South. I first became aware of the dangers of tornadoes in the summer of 1955, when I was 10. My sister Ursula and I were playing outside on a warm June day that started out clear, but then became increasingly cloudy and windy. A few scattered raindrops were falling when Mom called us to come in. She heard a radio warning of a tornado on the ground approaching Scottsbluff. It was near the airport, which was east of our house and I looked out the bedroom window, hoping to spot it. I could tell my mother was afraid, but for me, not having any real conception about the destructiveness of tornadoes, it was all very exciting.
Looking out the window, did I see the tornado? I don’t know. I had no idea what I was looking for until the next day, when photos of the tornado and its damage appeared in the local paper. In retrospect, I always thought I caught a glimpse of the tornado, but maybe it is only because that is what I wanted to believe. I did learn tornadoes are not only dangerous, but also deadly. Of the two deaths caused by the tornado, one was a classmate’s brother.
Still, given the context of time and place, I remained more fascinated than in fear of tornadoes. Western Nebraska is not in the mainstream of “Tornado Alley” and has relatively few tornadoes. Also, the broadcast media — radio and especially television — were not as diligent (relentless?) back then in tracking storms and broadcasting warnings. Nor do I remember taking part in any tornado survival drills in school.
Moving forward a few years to 1970; Linda and I were now married and living in Kentucky. Tornadoes still were not a serious concern of mine until the fateful day of April 3, 1974. It began like any other spring day in the Midsouth, maybe just a bit warmer. That evening after supper Linda, our three-year old daughter Angela and I were in our car exploring Lexington, a city about the size of Des Moines. Storm warnings were posted earlier that day, and now the radio reported tornado strikes and severe destruction in Louisville, about 70 miles distant. The sun had not yet set, but the blue sky was becoming obscured by an ominous gathering mist or haze. Being a fan of science fiction movies, I thought this would be the ideal prelude to an attack from space aliens or some other unearthly cataclysm.
The cataclysm came, but it was earthly! Shortly the streetlights turned on and when the radio warned that the storms were approaching Lexington, we decided to head home. Then the streetlights all went dark. All terrestrially-linked power was off — streetlights, traffic lights, businesses, homes. In the deepening gloom of the evening, only the few remaining vehicles on the streets provided any illumination, and soon the streets were all but deserted.
It was nearly dark when we arrived home. The air was heavy and still. We lit some candles, turned on a transistor radio and found what we considered a safe place to huddle together. Adding to the night’s eeriness, police cars periodically drove up and down the streets, loudspeakers blaring, warning people to stay in their homes. Rain now started, accompanied by lightning and rolling thunder. Over the next several hours, we listened to the radio as word of tornado strikes from the surrounding communities filtered in, one after another: Paris, Georgetown, Winchester, Nicholasville, Midway, Versailles and the rest. With landlines cut and wireless communication at the time still more theoretical than real, tornado victims were left in dark isolation. It was truly a dark and stormy night. No town was spared, and after hearing each new report, we listened closely to the wind and rain outside, every moment expecting a tornado to come bearing down on us.
In the early morning hours the “all clear” sounded, indicating the danger for us had passed. We went to bed and awoke next morning to a sunny day, belying the horrendous destruction of the night before. We learned that Xenia, Ohio, had been completely destroyed, with 32 deaths. In what was at the time the largest tornado “super outbreak” in the U.S., 148 tornadoes cut a swath from Mississippi and Alabama to Ontario, Canada, resulting in 315 deaths.
Iowa, of course, has its share of deadly, destructive tornadoes, to which the residents of Parkersburg can attest. At least once each year we make our way down to the basement to take cover when we hear the tornado warning siren. But the drama, turmoil and fear as we huddled by the radio that night of terror, we have not experienced again. Thank goodness!
Pete Korsching is an Iowa State University Emeritus Professor, a Nevada resident and a freelance columnist for the Nevada Journal.