Friday, March 27, 2015

The Reality of Tornados

1965 Palm Sunday tornado, as it appeared in
Dunlap Indiana
Recently, I saw the attached (below) video of the April 11, 1965 Palm Sunday tornado damage that killed my aunt and destroyed my folks, grandparents and great grandparents homes.  In addition, the death toll, injuries and property damage ranks this tornado one of the deadliest in history.  Starting about frame 46, it shows a two story white farm house after the tornado between Kokomo and Greentown Indiana.

I thought I'd share that tornado from my perspective.

My folks lived on a farm a mile off Route 31 between Kokomo and Greentown Indiana.  The road was then called "Pumpkin Vine Pike".  I lived in that house from second grade until I married.  At the time of the tornado, I lived in Kokomo some fifteen minutes away.

We had visited mom and dad that Palm Sunday.  I had a toddler, Trent, and we played outside in the yard.  It was sunny, very windy and a bit chilly.  Trent had been put down for a nap in the upstairs bedroom in a baby bed.  Towards late afternoon the three of us had returned home.

Trent's father worked at Kokomo's St. Joseph Hospital.  All medical facilities had disaster plans which included all personal even if you weren't in a medical profession.

After dark, we heard a storm which included hail.  The sky had been a peculiar pea soup green.  Because it was so loud, after it stopped we went outside and found hail balls the size of softballs.  Most had debris embedded and the air had an unpleasant chemical smell.  At about this time, my husband received a phone call to report to work for a disaster event.

Some time later my husband called to say there had been a tornado and it had gone down the road where my folks lived.  He had checked the ER and admissions and they weren't listed.  He knew nothing else about them.

As was typical among most young families during that era, we had only one car and I had no means to go out to check on my family.  I tried to call them and could not get through.  We lost power and I couldn't listen to the radio or TV.  I sat and waited.

Several hours later there was a knock on the door and a neighbor of my folks came to get me.  He said my folks were alive and not injured but their place had been destroyed.  Dad had asked him to come get me to fetch my mother to my house.  I left my young son with my neighbor and we left.

Their neighbor had a station wagon and he'd been taking injured people to St. Joseph Hospital because there wasn't enough ambulances to transport everyone.  He stopped by my house on the way back to the damage sites.

This neighbor also told me the tornado had hit my grandparent's home where a cousin and his family now lived.  They were not injured but the house and outbuildings destroyed.  My great-grandparent's home had also been destroyed.  My uncle & aunt now lived there.  The neighbors and family were currently digging through the bricks to find my aunt.  She was a school teacher and had been home alone in the two story brick home, grading papers at the kitchen table, when the tornado caused the house to implode.  She was eventually found beneath the refrigerator - deceased.

The trip there on that very dark night was a fuzzy mess of tangled images.  It was hard to know where I was because landmarks were so distorted.  Upon arriving it was difficult to tell exactly where things had stood because so much was simply gone.  Dad insisted on staying with the house all night because looting had already been reported at other sites.   Being a tough old farmer, he was not about to be budged.  In truth, he was probably in some kind of shock and functioning on adrenaline and survival mode.  Mom was pretty much dazed and I led her home.  Both were extremely dirty.

Mom shared the events.  She had always been scared of storms and I remember spending a good part of my childhood sitting in the basement waiting for a storm to blow over.  Needless to say, as a group we made fun of mom over these trips.  This day she had gone upstairs to close the windows as it had started to rain and had just come down stairs and gone into the kitchen.

At that moment, the tornado hit the house.  Mom got under the kitchen table and was being thrown around pretty good in addition to being lifted off the floor.  Dad had positioned himself in the doorway between the kitchen and dining room because he knew it was double thickness since the kitchen had been an add-on.  He finally was able to grab mom and hold onto her until the tornado passed.  The entrance to the basement was outside so even if they had thought of going there, it would have been too late.

This tornado was one of five super cells that evening.  Our neighboring towns of Kokomo, Russiaville, Alto and Greentown all had much destruction.  At this time, the tornados were F4.  All total, there were 78 tornadoes (38 significant, 19 violent, 21 killers) hitting the Midwest.  In Indiana, 137 people were killed and 1,200 injured (the deadliest in Indiana's history.)  In Howard County the death toll was 18 with 600 injured.  The tornadoes occurred in a 450 mile swath west to east and 200 mile swath north to south.  It lasted eleven hours and in terms of number, strength, width, path and length of tornados, it was one of the move severe ever recorded.  When the tornado destroyed my family's homes, it was a mile wide.

As you can see in the before picture, the front of the house was a two story (left) that held six rooms, the stairway and a front porch.  The one story middle held the kitchen, a bathroom and two side porches.  The back was a two story that held four rooms, a stairway and a side porch.  The outbuildings included a coal shed, garage, workshop, two large corncribs with areas for machinery, an outhouse, some other small structures and the big main barn.  The big barn had two levels of haymows, a large middle machinery portion and sides large enough to feed and house many animals.

The property had many old large trees including a catalpa grove.  After the tornado, the entire back two story of the house was gone, the kitchen was severely damaged, the downstairs dining room furniture was in one of the upstairs bedrooms, and the baby bed mattress was wedged in a window frame.  In the surviving front rooms, even though windows were gone and there were holes in the walls, the pictures were still hanging on the walls as perfectly as before.

All trees were either gone or severely damaged.  We were told the tornado was a combination that would break off into as many as five fingers and then reform into one huge storm.  The damage at my folks gave that impression because the front yard was wiped out, the front of the house still stood, the back was gone, some of the next farm buildings left standing and the big barn gone.

In recent years, farmland across the road had been sold for new homes and they all were severely damaged although no one was killed.  Others before and after it hit my folks house would not be so fortunate.

From walking through my folks house afterward, it became clear survival isn't predictable.  (Although we all granted to mom if they had been in the basement, they would have been much safer.)  As I thought about where I would have tried to hide, I'd soon see it was a place where a huge board was imbedded or other debris would have been a killer.  Why my dad chose that door and how he was able to grab my mother - and why nothing came through that doorway - or why they weren't whisked up the stairs with the dining room furniture and on and on the unanswerable questions occur.

One of the creepy things was the slow moving line of cars that continually passed by the house.  Faces turned toward us, eyes round at the horrible destruction and then not meeting our eyes.  It was like a funeral procession driving by and feeling embarrassed to be staring.  At times it made me angry because we could have used more help and other times I understood the curiosity and I ignored them.

My folks never totally recover from the tornado.  Since they didn't own the land, they bought a house in Kokomo.  It suited mom well but the realization that dad would not be dropping in every so often because he farmed some twenty minutes away made for a more lonely time.  Dad was of an age where starting over someplace else, with the expense of all new equipment, eventually put an end to his farming for himself.  Always busy, he continued working for others but he sorely missed farming all the rest of his life.

My widowed uncle rebuilt a modern home on the same site with bricks from the old place.  His son and family live there now but others farm the land.

My cousin rebuilt a modern home on the same site and had to build all new farm buildings.  They continue to farm the land.

Eventually, the owner where my folks lived razed everything on the property and with the exception of a small grassy plot, I find it hard to even visualize where my home had sat.

The houses across the road have been rebuilt.

Mom and dad lived with us for three months while they bought another house.  Mom continued to wake up frightened every time she heard a train during the night.  (We lived two houses from a main railroad track in Kokomo.)

Because this part of Indiana and this era in time was where neighbors for many miles knew and cared for each other (many related), the miles and miles of tornado damage touched everyone.

This is where I saw for the first time large scale help from neighbors, family, friends and strangers.  One day shortly after the tornado, Amish families showed up, called upon dad and then walked the fields picking up all debris as they went.  This was especially valuable as simple things like paperwork and pictures were scattered.  In a larger sense, they also found farm animals.

Also, destroyed in this tornado was the school in Greentown where I graduated and the grade school in Taylor Township where I went to one through eight.  Both schools were rebuilt.

My childhood memories are simply that:  memories.  The homes where I lived and visited family are gone.  The schools are gone.  Many of the homes of friends and neighbors are gone.  Granted most have been rebuilt but my memories are sheltered in those pictures of the past.

As a result of this series of tornados, NOAA has changed the way they warn and how they warn the public.  They've also changed their thinking on the tornadoes forming fingers and then going back together - they now think there are tornadoes within tornadoes.

I believe in knowing what's going on weather wise.  I have a weather alert device that has a siren I can hear when out in the yard.  I have weather alert on my cell phone.  For people who think they are too macho or too cool to take shelter during a severe weather WARNING - silly, silly, deadly silly.  Do I run for the basement every time there's a WATCH?  No, but I
I'm more aware.    

So to answer the question:  Am I afraid of bad weather or tornados?  The answer is:  I'm not afraid.  I have learned to respect what nature can do and to take precautions.  And I'm truly grateful when we have a year without a tornado even close to our area.  Really really grateful.

"Death Out of Darkness" Palm Sunday Tornadoes 1965 - is a public safety documentary by the Indiana State Police.  Note: The advice on what to do is not used anymore but the commentary and videos are riveting.

Side Note:  If you're into storms and preparedness I have two other articles:  Storms "Spring Weather" in 2009 and Tornado Warnings "Skirtin' on the Edge of Normal" 2014.

An old photo of our house prior to the tornado.  The two-story
portion to the back (R) was completely gone as were the

 rest of the building you can barely see in the background.

1965 palm sunday tornado howard county indiana pt 1.wmv    Big white 2-story house in frame (seconds) about 56.  

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