June/July 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 4
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.
That was merely a prelude. Some twenty minutes later, as residents crept from cover to assess the damage, they noticed bearing down on them from the northwest an inky cloud of terrifying aspect and dimension. Some witnesses told of seeing one funnel, some two, and some none at all—only a two-mile front of solid blackness advancing “majestically” on the prostrate town to finish what the original funnel had begun.
Fourteen townspeople were killed in that second onslaught, including a mother and her four daughters, ages two through nine, whose bodies were later found scattered nude over the prairie. More than thirty-five others were severely injured, and forty buildings were swept away.
A country newspaper account of that week tells of horses caught up in the wind and deposited wild-eyed and mud-caked in strange pastures, of chickens stripped of their feathers and wild rabbits blown slick of their hair, and of a partly decapitated hog seen wandering the wrecked village days afterward, still “quite alive and … apparently at ease.”
At the height of the storm, it had occurred to some of Irving’s people that the end of the world might be at hand. Afterward, many of them salvaged their belongings and fled back to former homes in the East. But traumatic as the visitation had been for the people of the village, it scarcely even suggested the damage a tornado could wreak on a modern city.
Eighty-seven years later and sixty-five straight-line miles away, sometime after six o’clock the evening of June 8, 1966, William Corbett sat at the kitchen table of his farmhouse southwest of Topeka, the Kansas capital, listening to broadcast weather bulletins. The area was on storm alert.
The radio told of a terrific hailstorm headed his way, Corbett, now ninety-one, recollects. Then he looked out his kitchen window, saw the cloud’s underside, said to himself, “Hell, that ain’t no hail!” and retreated to the cellar with a pet parakeet. The tornado passed a bit to the north, wrecking Corbett’s barn but only lightly damaging the house. Unknown to him or anyone, it already had killed an elderly couple several miles west, whose bodies were found stripped of all but their stockings.
John Meinholdt, a volunteer weather observer, had a better view of the storm’s approach. From his assigned station atop Burnett’s Mound, a prominence at Topeka’s southwest edge, he watched the enormous black cloud—still fifteen or twenty miles distant—come boiling in across the farming flatlands toward the city. The storm cell, he was told by mobile radio, did not appear on the weather bureau’s radarscope. Meinholdt waited.
About ten miles out, the cloud, preceded by rain and hail, sagged down to touch the earth, not yet in the form of a visible funnel but as a broad, black mass rushing toward Meinholdt and the city. The observer shouted a last warning into the radio, then gunned his truck down off the mound at a safe right angle to the storm’s path. Topeka had thirteen minutes’ notice.
There was a long-cherished belief, supposedly grounded in Indian legend, that Burnett’s Mound, rearing up to block the southwest approach, assured immunity from destructive winds. But this time the killer cloud—now assuming the form of what one witness described as “a big, slick funnel,” oozed directly up and over the hill where Meinholdt had stood and descended at seven fifteen with a throaty rumble on the capital.
In a matter of moments, a swath of continuous desolation ranging from one-quarter to one-half mile wide had been chewed through the heart of Topeka. Sixteen persons were killed outright or fatally injured and more than 320 hurt severely enough to need hospital treatment. The property loss surpassed $135,000,000.
In the days to follow, identifiable debris from the shattered city was discovered as far as sixty miles away. One of the artifacts was a homemade chocolate-iced cake, perfectly intact on its plate in a soybean field near St. Joseph in the neighboring state of Missouri.
“… there came a great shriek from the wind.… Then a strange thing happened.
“The house whirled around two or three times and rose slowly through the air. Dorothy felt as if she were going up in a balloon.”
The twister carried the house and Dorothy all the way from the Kansas prairie to deposit them in the Land of Oz. And though that was only a fiction, strange things truly do happen in the whirl of the storm.
A tornado that tore through the community of Kirksville, Missouri, on April 27, 1899, plucked up two women and a boy, carried them over a church, and restored them to earth on the town common one-quarter mile away, scarcely hurt.
“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.
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.
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.
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.