The Winds Of Ruin

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Kansas has long been known as the “Cyclone State,” a distinction sometimes credited to the memorable violence of the Irving tornado of nearly a century ago. Others say it is because early authorities on the subject happened to live and work there, or because Dorothy’s flight to Oz began there, or simply because, on that open sweep of prairie, the Kansas twisters are exceptionally photogenic.

The truth is that the state’s claim to the title is suspect. In the two decades from the mid-fifties through the mid-seventies, Texas experienced 2,475 tornadoes, against 1,078 reported from Kansas. Measured in lives lost, the fist of tragedy has fallen hardest since 1916 on Mississippi, Arkansas, and Illinois, each with more than one thousand dead, followed in descending order by Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Georgia. Kansas ranks a distant twelfth.

The peak of annual activity is reached in the months of April, May, and June, with the time of greatest menace about ninety minutes before sunset and the least peril two hours before sunrise. But these are only the probabilities. In practice, tornadoes have occurred at every hour, during every month, and in every state of the continental United States.

As Topekans discovered, huddled behind the illusory protection of their mound, there is no refuge to be found in folklore. Tornadoes, for instance, like lightning bolts, haven’t the least compunction about striking more than once in the same place.

St. Louis, Missouri, has been hit at least nine times by twisters, with the most destructive of the storms—in 1896, 1927, and 1959—arriving at intervals of exactly thirty-one years and four months. A St. Louis University meteorologist noted in a 1959 newspaper interview that the three occurred near the end of sunspot cycles, with the next comparable period due in May and June of 1990. Most of his professional colleagues ascribe the storms’ timing to coincidence.

The first of the major St. Louis tornadoes, the one of May 27, 1896, was the most costly in lives (more than three hundred) and dollars (nearly $13,000,000) of any in the United States to that date or for three decades to follow.

Local thunderstorms had been forecast for the day, but without mention of violent winds. Toward noon the clouds mounted threateningly and the barometer began a persistent fall. A preternatural darkness began gathering over the city, and by four-thirty, according to a contemporary account, “it became obvious that the atmospheric conditions were unprecedented in the recollection of the people.”

Thus marshaled, the storm commenced its rush upon the city, raucous with thunder, filled with snaking forks of blue lightning, a screwlike funnel dangling shrieking from the parent cloud. Major buildings were reduced to kindling and heaps of bricks along a six-mile track. Mississippi River steamers were ripped from their moorings and smaller boats wrecked and flung about, with loss of life. A two-by-four-inch white pine scantling was driven through a steel girder of the Eads Bridge, whose approach at the Illinois end sustained major damage.

Countless blazes soon erupted, and fire wagons were unable to make their way through debris-choked streets. Unfortunates who survived the wind but were pinned under timbers and other wreckage burned to death before the eyes of their horrified families. By daylight of the next day, the frantic, the grieving, and the curious milled unmanageably outside the municipal deadhouse. The door to the morgue had to be barred.

THE WORST WIND STORM IN THE WORLD’S HISTORY the St. Louis Chronicle bannered on the morrow of the calamity. Actually, it had been a tornado of but moderate force, serving only to illustrate that vulnerability increases exponentially with the concentration of people and property.

Comparing data from various points on the twister’s course, a St. Louis weather official noted that it had gained in intensity as it entered the town and ebbed as it passed eastward into open country. “The immense increase of surplus heat which had been stored in the walls and streets of the city during the seven weeks previous … may have contributed to this,” he suggested.

Since up-rushing warm air is the energy that powers a tornado, his speculation was that some storms may literally feed on the community they are wrecking.

The next great St. Louis tornado, of September 29,1927, was again a storm of no exceptional force. But when it had passed—not as a discernible funnel but rather a blurred, grayish-brown cloud mass at ground level, a “fog” as some witnesses described it—seventy-two persons were dead, five hundred more hurt. And the resulting $25,000,000 loss was a figure not to be surpassed until the Waco, Texas, twister of May, 1953.