The 2011 tornado season has, so far, been as bad as most people can remember. Records indicate that it’s already the worst since 1950, which was apparently a very bad year…I can’t say because I wasn’t alive at the time. But that’s what the records, the news reporters, and the folks at the Weather Channel are saying.
The year started badly, with tornadoes causing destruction in Mississippi on January 1st. Yeah, Happy New Year to you, too. And in every subsequent month, there have more added to the total. In April, an EF3 touched down in Mapleton, Iowa, a couple hours northwest of where we live. The damage was tremendous. When we drove through Mapleton in late May, the destruction was still easily visible.
But of course, the news has been dominated by two events. The first was the massive outbreak in late April, as more than 300 separate twisters tore individual paths of destruction across the landscape in a 4- or 5-day stretch. Though they weren’t limited to the Southern states, it’s certainly where most of the damage was done. Tennessee, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Texas were hit hard. But the worst losses were in Alabama, where powerful storms unleashed tornadoes on Tuscaloosa. I’m not exactly sure of the number killed, but it’s in the neighborhood of 350 people.
And of course, there was the tornado that plastered Joplin, Missouri a couple of weeks ago. It may have only one of more than 100 tornadoes that spawned from storms that week, but it was easily the worst. This single storm caused 150 deaths, more than 1,000 injuries, and largely laid waste to a town of 50,000 people.
If you’re like me and you’ve never experienced a tornado first-hand, it’s difficult to comprehend the absolute power and viciousness of the storm. There’s this Enhanced Fujita Scale that ranks tornadoes by their “level of devastation” (EF0-EF5), but I’m guessing that it does little to convey to the “man in the basement” or the “man in the innermost room of the house” the steamroller force these storms possess. It’s something no one wants to experience, but no one can adequately describe it without first going through, and then surviving, one.
Modern weather technology has made it possible to detect conditions that favor tornado formation. And most of the data is readily available to the public, making “storm chasing” something of the rage now. If you have a laptop computer, some weather sensors, a way to maintain a good internet and/or phone connection, and a car that you don’t care about, you can spend your springtime afternoons and evenings looking for trouble. And in the Midwest, between April and July, you shouldn’t have to go too far to find it…especially this year.
But modern technology hasn’t always been our savior. There was a time when laptop computers didn’t exist. Cell phones?…nope. Super-Mega-Quadruple-Power Doppler radar?…never heard of it. Back in the 1970s, weather maps were either chalkboards or flannel-graphs (remember those from Sunday School?), with some temperatures and maybe a high or a low thrown on for good measure. And guess what? We still had to deal with tornadoes back then.
One I remember particularly well occurred on June 13, 1976, when I was just seven years old. I remember that Sunday particularly well. After church, a bunch of us had piled into one of the church buses and had gone down to the Des Moines River for a baptismal service. The noontime weather was sauna-like: humid, breezy, and very hot. And of course, mid-June is smack-dab in Iowa’s tornado season. Conditions were vine-ripened for bad stuff to happen.
That afternoon, storms blossomed all over the area, giving rise to severe weather and blaring tornado sirens. And for the 35 or 40 people living in Jordan, Iowa (just a couple miles east of where I lived), it gave them a sight (and a memory) they wouldn’t soon forget. A massive tornado (shown above), a mile or more wide, bore down on the small central-Iowa community. Dad had gone back to work in Ames, so he missed our “family prayer meeting” in the basement under the table where my brother and I built our model cars, but since the storm was right between us and him, he probably headed for cover as well.
Again, the lack of modern devices to pinpoint the location of the storm meant we only knew that a tornado was spotted and was nearby. But the folks in Jordan didn’t need much help from non-existent radar or laptop-wielding spotters. The area is extremely flat and wide open, so the twister that flattened their town was easily visible. And when I say flattened, I mean just that.
When we saw photos of Tuscaloosa or Joplin, we were amazed by the piles of rubble, the destroyed cars, and the damaged trees. In Jordan?…well, there was none of that. It was wiped clean, razed to the ground, with the houses blown to bits, the trees sheared off (or uprooted altogether), and the cars scattered to the winds. Other than a slab here or there, it was almost as though Jordan had never existed.
I’m not sure the Enhanced Fujita Scale (or even its predecessor, the Fujita Scale) existed at the time, but experts believe that the EF5 that hit Jordan that Sunday afternoon was one of the most powerful ever recorded. And the most incredible thing? For all the ferocity of that storm and considering all the damage done (despite the small size of the town), not a single life was lost to it.
Such are the vicissitudes of storms…