Saturday, May 28, 2011

sudden storm

Very tragic news this week as a category 5 Tornado smashed into the town of Joplin, Missouri, cutting a swath of destruction through the center of town and even hitting the local hospital. The tragedy has claimed 139 lives so far, making it the deadliest single tornado recorded and surpassing the prior record from 1953, an event which preceeded my own birth but nonetheless had an enormous impact on 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. But this terrible sudden storm in Joplin reminds us that the need to be vigilant does not dissipate with time, and natural disasters do not fall out of fashion.

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. We will remember always.

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