Saturday, April 21, 2012

My Tornado Story, Part I


"Have you ever seen a tornado?"  It's one of the standard questions I have fielded over the years, when people learn I'm from Kansas.  The answer is no, and the disappointed inquirer usually moves on to other topics.  But few people have thought to ask me if I have been in a tornado, to which I would have to answer yes—at least, within two city blocks of one.

Mine is not a spectacular story.  Most people who survived the Hoisington tornado, or any other large-scale twister, have far more amazing accounts.  Like Heather, my former classmate in the purple jacket above, who was providentially out of her house that night when it was lifted off its foundation and a neighbor's car was flipped into the basement.  These stories are still told around town.  Any time there is a lull in conversation, one can always bring up "the tornado."  Some of these stories were featured in national news coverage, and NPR's "This American Life" even aired a 25-minute feature.

I can't compete with those.  And I'm glad!—boring is better when it comes to personal involvement in natural disasters.  But it's my story, and I tell it on this April 21 anniversary to remember God's steadfast watch-care, and to honor the tenacity and good will of folks in America's heartland.  And also to remind you to heed your local weather man when he tells you to take cover.

It was a Saturday evening like this, eleven years ago.  I was a high school senior but since I was homeschooled the last few years, I wasn't heading to the prom like most other kids my age.  The day had been exceptionally windy and conditions were ripe for violent weather.  A tornado watch had been issued, but I don't think a tornado warning.  (A watch signifies that tornadoes could form; a warning means a tornado has been confirmed on the ground nearby.)  If the city sirens sounded, they were too late, drowned out by the powerful storm that abruptly slammed into the town.

Mom and I were watching from inside the house as the wind and rain picked up.  There was little to see, as the sun had set and the storm reduced visibility to a minimum, but the noise was tremendous.  I noticed suddenly that it was not just rain or hail pounding the windows any more; it was clumps of mud and debris.  Later, we figured out that was from the tornado touching down less than a mile away and rapidly moving closer.

Above the wind Mom yelled, "Let's get downstairs."  We quickly made our way toward the stairs, where we met Dad, who had the same urgent idea.  That's when the 2x4 came crashing through the patio door and landed at our feet.

If there had been any doubt left, that eliminated it.  Fifteen seconds later, the three of us were huddled between boxes and the water heater in our small basement.  The electricity was out, but Dad switched on a battery-operated radio and we listened to the familiar voices of the nearby station urging Hoisington residents to take cover.  But by then, the tornado was headed out of town, having changed it forever in the span of three minutes.

After a short time, Dad ventured upstairs again and returned with a wet and shivering Trixie, who had survived the storm inside her blessedly sturdy doghouse.  "It's too dark to see, but it seems like there's a lot of damage," he reported.  We waited a while until the all-clear was given on the radio, and then emerged from the basement to the sounds of neighbors exchanging shouts of "You okay over there?"

Our immediate neighborhood had survived, but the streets were impassable and there was nothing to do but wait for morning.  I lay in bed for a long time, sweltering in the still air and listening to the unusual silence, punctuated occasionally by the distant sounds of people shouting, and the glints of far-off flashlights.

I don't think anyone in town slept much that night.  One man had been killed in the tornado.  Those who had been hit hardest were being pulled from basements and bathtubs.  The rest of us braced ourselves for what daylight would reveal.

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