The Winds Of Ruin


In a sermon shortly after the storm, a clergyman striving to show the faithful some purpose in their ordeal could improve little on Cotton Mather. “Indirectly,” he told them, it was “a visitation from a merciful and loving Providence.… Whom the Lord loveth He chastiseth. Chastisement here is better than chastisement hereafter.” Having been lashed at the rate of better than once a decade, St. Louisans must consider themselves to be fiercely loved and amply chastised.

Private John P. Finley, U.S. Signal Corpsman, was dispatched a century ago to investigate the circumstances and effects of the tornadoes on the Central Plains. From that assignment he would go on to become the foremost early researcher of the storms, the pioneer in their forecasting.

As early as his 1879 report to the War Department, Finley recommended stationing a special observer at Kansas City during high-risk months to flash warnings of atmospheric disturbances by telegraph to points throughout the lower Mississippi Valley.

Although tornadoes will strike, whether they are predicted or not, he declared, “to get the right information to the proper point before the occurrence of the dangerous phenomenon, thereby affording opportunity to provide against its ravages, is the great desideratum. It can be done.” Finley’s advice was taken almost to the letter, seventy-five years later, with the location in Kansas City in 1954 of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center.

The center monitors meteorological data from across the nation, alert to the marked wind shifts and to the temperature and moisture contrasts that signal the probability of a weather disturbance as much as twenty-four hours before its occurrence, even before the first clouds have been seen to form.

Two to eight hours before the event, the conclusion is reached that thunderstorms will develop and that some of them could contain twisters. A tornado watch is mounted over an area of twenty-five thousand square miles for six hours. It then falls to local weather offices to decide when the storms will become active in their vicinities and to issue the ultimate warning.

A tornado “hook” may be detected on radar, appearing as a figure six, with the funnel in the bottom curl of the numeral. Unhandily, there are hooks without tornadoes and tornadoes without hooks. Funnel clouds may also be reported by observers, but waiting for that visual sighting could cost the threatened area precious minutes of notice. Often it is a judgment call.

Radio and television stations relay the “take-cover” advisory. Emergency sirens blare. In the gathering gloom, the citizenry scrambles obediently to lifesaving refuge. That is how it is supposed to happen.

But as Allen Pearson, director of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center, observes ruefully, the Maginot Line can be breached. Some cities cannot afford elaborate warning systems. Power sources may fail, stilling the alarms. And there is a human factor. “Back in the fifties, when we first started issuing tornado forecasts, we created some panic—we know that,” Pearson says. “Now apathy is our greatest enemy. Some cities have adopted a policy of not blowing the sirens for fear of alarming the public. We’ve told them what we think of that!”

Pearson sees the immense, preoccupied congregations of humanity in stadiums, at fairgrounds, and at rock concerts as today’s especially terrifying targets.

“My own private hell,” he confides, “is of a tornado bearing down on one of those. Or on a large mobile-home park in a state that doesn’t require tie-downs.”

The Memorial Day Indianapolis 500 auto race is attended annually by over three hundred thousand people, perhaps the world’s largest sporting crowd. It also occurs during the peak of tornado season. And weather bureau officials in that city report that on a May Sunday in 1972, while some two hundred thousand fans were watching pre-race time trials at the track, a twister did in fact touch down on the far edge of the city.

Though of fair size, it caused no deaths, injuring only twenty people and wrecking several houses along its short course. State police stationed in the tower at the race track could see the funnel clearly across a distance of fifteen miles. Their emotions at that moment can only be imagined.

Then the whirling cloud moved on eastward. And no public address announcement of its passage disturbed the enjoyment of the Speedway throng.