The Winds Of Ruin

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“I was conscious all the time I was flying through the air,” one of the women reported, “and it seemed a long time. I seemed to be lifted up and whirled round and round, going up to a great height, at one time far above the church steeples. … As I was going through the air, being whirled about at the sport of the storm, I saw a horse soaring and rotating about with me. It was a white horse and had a harness on. By the way it kicked and struggled as it was hurled about I knew it was live. I prayed God that the horse might not come in contact with me, and it did not.”

The boy also saw the horse, directly over him in the vortex, and experienced the same fear of being kicked. Later the creature was found mud-plastered but uninjured a mile from the town and was returned to its owner.

Especially from rural areas come accounts of cornstalks driven through barn walls and of fence posts left bristling with straws, like the quills of a porcupine, after the storm has passed.

When the western Minnesota town of Fergus Falls surveyed the havoc of a June, 1919, tornado that left fifty-nine dead, an automobile was found imprisoned in the crotch of a tree that had been wrenched open by the twister and had sprung shut again when released by the wind. From other storms there are stories of a cow being snatched from its stall while the milker sat uninj ured on his stool, of teams of horses being neatly stripped of their harness, and of a railroad locomotive being spun 180 degrees and set down undamaged on the opposite track.

In a pasture at Apperson, Oklahoma, in 1935, a herd of 160 panicked cattle stampeded directly into a funnel. All but five of the beasts were found with their necks snapped.

The Ruskin Heights tornado which raked several suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri, the evening of May 20,1957, killing fortysix persons and injuring more than five hundred, produced the oddity of a bowl of goldfish perched intact on a table on the slab foundation of an otherwise vanished home.

One survivor of that storm told of seizing his three-year-old daughter by the hair to keep her from being whipped away by the blast. Some are not so lucky.

An Alabama man named Luther Kelley lost his first wife in a tornado that struck the town of Sylacauga in 1917. Fifteen years later, the whirling wind scourged Sylacauga again, and Kelley’s second wife was among its victims.

Not all the accounts of the freakish doings of the wind are to be believed. At least they are not authenticated. “For a given storm,” says one authority on the subject, “there may be five or ten good eyewitnesses. But let five years pass and that’s gone up to fifty or sixty. It’s wonderful how time improves memory.”

At Texas Technological College in Lubbock, a research group of five engineers and two atmospheric scientists seeks to separate tornado fact from fancy. Since 1970 the members of the team have studied the physical evidence at the sites of thirty-two different storms. They have yet to discover real proof of plucked chickens, hairless rabbits, or wells sucked empty by the funnel. But they have assembled evidence on what Dr. Joseph Minor, director of the Institute for Disaster Research, laconically calls “some impressive missiles.”

At Plainview, Texas, a carport roof, its upper surface providing lift like the wing of an airplane, was found to have flown two blocks. On impact, one of its two-by-twelve main beams penetrated the outer brick and inner wooden walls of a house, piercing the headboard of a bed from which a terrified couple had only seconds earlier fled to safety in a hall.

In Omaha the timbers of a school roof—huge members nine by fifteen inches and forty feet long—were hurled fifteen hundred feet and plunged like spears into the ground.

In Lubbock itself, during the 1970 tornado that initiated the research, a steel fertilizer tank eleven feet in diameter and fortyone feet long, with an empty weight of thirteen tons, was moved three quarters of a mile from its original resting place. It may or may not have flown.

 

Such phenomena provide clues to the actual, rather than mythic, force of the winds. One absorbing area of inquiry has been the likely effect of the most violent conceivable twister on a nuclear reactor. Of the more than one thousand tornadoes in a given year, an average of one to four will be of maximum fury. Assuming the hypothetical worst—a super wind and a formidable missile, flung end on for most lethal effect—a laboratory in Albuquerque propelled a telephone pole on a rocket sled against a two-foot reinforced concrete barrier, identical to the walls of a reactor and its safety-related buildings.

The result, observable in high-speed photography: the forward one third of the pole was shredded to sawdust, as if by a giant pencil sharpener. The wall was unmarked.