Sunday, May 4, 2008

sudden storm

A year ago today I read in the news about the small Kansas town of Greensburg which was practically demolished by a category 5 tornado. The entire town was all but levelled. I was immediately transported back to my childhood.

My hometown of Flint, Michigan was hit by a category 5 tornado in June of 1953. It descended on a muggy Midwestern summer night with almost no warning and mowed through hundreds of homes while it meandered eastward at a rate of approximately 30 mph. The storm left an entire neighborhood in ruins and cost 116 persons their lives. Sadly, almost half of the victims were children. The tragedy is recalled as the Beecher Tornado.

Both of my parents were young adults at that time, and the disaster had a lasting effect on them. My brother was born five years later in 1958 and myself in 1960. While the Beecher Tornado had long since passed, we were keenly aware of what had happened. My mother told stories of the rescue efforts and recounted stories of those who survived and those who did not. I vividly recall her telling the story of the woman who outran the tornado in her 1949 Buick, with the speedometer reading 100mph as the wind repeatedly lifted the back wheels off the ground. Her six children cowered in the back seat in fear but the car made it to safety.

When my brother and I were older, she showed us home movies my uncle Bill had taken the day following the storm. It was virtually impossible for my five year old consciousness to discern what the piles of rubble in the movies had once been. We were raised with a very healthy respect for the destructive potential of nature, a respect that I believe we shared with every schoolchild in the city of Flint.

Mother was particularly nervous on humid summer nights, the kind that hung in the air and produced the thunderstorms which hatch tornadoes. While she never tried to cause needless alarm, she kept a keen eye on the skies as she watched us playing in the lush Michigan grass. It was universally understood in our neighborhood that a weather siren meant the immediate cessation of playtime and a dash for shelter. Many a summer evening was spent listening to the rain in the basement, waiting for the all clear signal to be broadcast over the little blue transistor radio.

It was not until adulthood that I actually looked at a map of the destruction and discovered what Mother had always known- the Tornado touched to earth almost exactly two miles north of the bedroom I shared with my brother. She was keenly aware of that fact every time a humid summer night occurred, it was a line on her brow. However, she somehow never imparted that knowledge unto us.

Of course, storm warnings matured rapidly after the tragic events of 1953, and the truth is that we were dramatically safer at all times than only a few short years before. And although many tornadoes have struck in the ensuing 50 plus years, none have caused the loss of life that was so ingrained on my young parents. The passage of time has not diminished the memories of the citizens of Flint, nor has it lessened the tragedy of the loss of a hundred and sixteen lives when the winds dashed the houses against the Michigan clay. The news can take me back there in an instant.


Anonymous said...

Hey Jeff, excellent essay. I was brought back to this myself last summer. Did we tell you that the tornado that hit Fenton last summer missed us by three houses? We had no damage at all, but my neighbor three houses down found his garage upside-down in the next door neighbor's back yard. And it certainly brought back Beecher memories....


BigAssBelle said...

i find myself enamored of wild storms because it is nature exerting itself and we cannot control them.

but the tragedy of towns destroyed and lives lost as a result of tornadoes and hurricanes tempers my love for wild weather.

Mother was particularly nervous on humid summer nights, the kind that hung in the air and produced the thunderstorms which hatch tornadoes. . . . i know that feeling so well. you can truly feel them coming, even before the weathermen start their hysterical yammering about swirls and funnels and wall clouds. there's a feeling that's absolutely unique and it brings with it, always, a frisson of fear. will this be the one? will we escape again?

i am also a child, a young adult, an adult of tornado alley. i love the power of them. i abhor the destruction. your mother was a wise woman.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff - interesting to read your blog. I was 2 and 1/2 in June 1953 and remember seeing the Worcester Mass supercell 25 miles to our south. You may remember that the Worcester Tornado was the afternoon following Flint. The supercell was so high it left an indelible impression - it reminded me of mounds of mashed potatoes or scoops of vanilla ice cream against a sky of most vivid crystalline blue. (We were at a safe distance and had ringside seats looking to the south where the storm was occurring). Curiously, the Worcester Tornado, with 94 dead, was the last US twister to kill more than 90, and the Flint (Beecher) Tornado the last to kill over 100. Those were the very last "large-fatality" tornadoes in the U.S.