The Winds Of Ruin

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A stifling spring or early summer afternoon draws on toward evening. To the west and south, a sullen cloudbank, swollen with moisture, pulsing with electrical display, rides up on the push of hot Gulf air.

Back-lighted by late sun, the advancing storm front can be seen to churn and shift and tumble in mighty collisions. But now, on the ground, the last memory of a breeze has subsided into a wrapping, oppressive stillness. A breath, it seems, scarcely can be drawn.

Farmers later may remember, or seem to remember, in these suspended moments an unaccountable agitation among the livestock, and city folk recall a strange unease.

The quality of light changes. The trees, each leaf frozen perfectly in place, the houses, the arrested figures of the people standing with faces upturned southwestward—all are bathed in a greenish glow, as if viewed through a discolored glass.

At last the terrible expectancy is broken by a new rising of the wind, lashing the upper branches of the trees, and by the sudden horizontal blast of rain that is the outrider of the storm. Almost as quickly as the telling of it, the temperature falls—ten degrees, fifteen, or more.

And much oftener than not, that will be all. The cloud line will rush over and away to north and east, and the people will come out again to see the last dayglow on their newly washed world, or collect olive-sized hailstones from the grass to ice their drinks.

Ordinarily it is so, but not always. For of the numberless such storms that sweep the continental United States each year, between six hundred and a thousand of them will contain—besides rain and hail—a fearsome capacity to wreck dreams and distort lives, or end them.

Since 1916, when systematic records began to be kept, tornadoes have killed more than eleven thousand people in this country, about 180 a year. Tens of thousands of others have seen their homes or families borne away to destruction. A few have taken that nightmare ride themselves and lived to tell about it, but rarely is the twisting wind that gentle.

One woman plucked from her prairie home by an early Kansas storm was found some distance away by neighbors, who reported that the body had been driven headfirst to the shoulders into the earth.

The first known mention of a tornado in pre-colonial America was in the diary of a member of the 1586 Roanoke landing party. On June 23, he recounts, as the fleet of Sir Francis Drake stood at anchor off the North Carolina coast, there arose a tempest characterized by awesome spouts—the manifestation of a tornado over water—of such violence as to cause all the ships to break loose from their anchors.

Tornadic winds, the most violent of all nature’s storms, occur at least occasionally over many other parts of the globe and so were not entirely unknown to the arriving Europeans. But the New World was and is especially cursed.

Meteorologists now know that the collision between warm, humid air pushing northward from the Gulf of Mexico and cold, northern air masses cresting the Rocky Mountains is a key to the not yet fully explained process of tornado formation. In no other place on earth, except perhaps in the northeast corner of the Indian subcontinent between the Bay of Bengal and the Himalayas, are conditions so ripe for their breeding.

In earliest accounts, some U.S. storms, clearly tornadic from their descriptions, were identified vaguely as “wind gusts” or “gales” or, wrongly, as “hurricanes.” Cotton Mather wondered in print why it was that their fury seemed “oftener [to] fall upon houses of God, than upon other houses,” accepting glumly that it was the Almighty’s voice speaking through an unleashed Satan. Benjamin Franklin in 1755 pursued a small tornado for three quarters of a mile on horseback, trying to dissipate it with repeated blows from his whip.

No general enumeration of these early storms exists, however. Real understanding of their frequency and true capacity for destruction awaited the push of settlement west of the Appalachians into the worst afflicted regions and, more particularly, the later growth there of large population centers susceptible to ruin of catastrophic scale.

Illustrative is the outbreak of a dozen twisters over thinly settled districts of Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska on May 29 and 30,1879. The reported toll of 42 dead and 185 injured would today be considered slight for an episode of such violence. In the four states, only one town was struck—Irving, a hamlet of 300 souls in northeastern Kansas.

The Irving funnel was seen to approach from the southwest on May 30 at half past five o’clock and descend on the tiny community with the characteristic roar, as of a hundred trains. Three houses were destroyed, an iron bridge over the adjoining Blue River wrecked, and the water momentarily driven back to expose the river’s bed.