After the Storm—“Glad to Be Alive!”
JUST a few seconds of destructive fury left a man in Cincinnati, Ohio, facing the job of sifting through the splinters of what was once his home. He was not alone. Nearly 20,000 other homeowners in the east central United States faced the same bleak prospect. Some had enough left to repair. Many would have to rebuild right from the foundation. They will never forget the power of a tornado.
Those who could concern themselves with their homes were the fortunate ones. About 3,700 would have to wait for the often appalling damage to their own bodies to heal. However, they and all who survived those moments of fury were heard to voice the phrase again and again: “I’m just glad to be alive!”
They had reason to be. The sight of grief-stricken relatives and friends of the some 320 who died tells the story far more vividly than words: a sobbing mother in Ohio whose month-old baby was torn from her arms, only to be found later by his father—in the morgue; a little boy in Georgia, screaming as he ran in circles next to the debris that covered the lifeless bodies of his parents and two sisters.
Nearly a hundred of these killers struck from the Gulf of Mexico to southern Canada, slaying people in eleven states and one province. As if a giant hand, one of them flattened nearly half of Xenia, Ohio—a city of 27,000. In less than five minutes it ripped a half-mile-wide, three-mile-long swath, completely destroying over 1,200 homes, 150 businesses and 6 of the 12 schools, while heavily damaging hundreds of other buildings. At least 34 died and a thousand were injured.
‘Most Violent Storm’
Spring weather in the central United States is said to be ideal for spawning tornadoes. Warm air normally rises above cooler air. When warm, moist air pushing north from the Gulf of Mexico noses under cool, dry air flowing east from the Rocky Mountains, trouble is brewing. Extreme turbulence often develops. The moisture-laden warm air billows up rapidly to create menacing clouds as cool air plummets down to replace it. Hailstones as large as golf balls may form. Many people were out picking them up in amazement moments before the April tornadoes struck.
The rapidly moving air makes a circular motion, much like water quickly funneling down a drain. If it reaches critical speed, whirling “funnel clouds” form, dipping fitfully from the dark clouds draped above. Tornadoes are born when these funnel clouds strike earth. Then they unpredictably dance and skip across the ground or stay down for some distance.
The 1974 Encyclopædia Britannica describes tornadoes as the “most violent of atmospheric storms.” A giant hurricane may develop wind speeds of over 100 miles per hour. But tightly concentrated tornado winds often reach 300 miles per hour and “may occasionally exceed 500 miles (800 kilometers) per hour.” The center of this whirling cylinder develops a powerful vacuum.
Thus tornadoes wreak their havoc in three ways: (1) by direct wind pressure blasting down objects in their path, (2) by causing a sudden air-pressure drop outside buildings as the vacuum center passes over, thereby “exploding” buildings with the force of their own inside pressure, and (3) by their powerful updraft, which can uproot trees and buildings, lift heavy objects and carry lighter ones for miles.
Apparently experiencing some of these forces, one Ohio man felt a “strong force like a magnet pulling” him up the basement stairs as he was trying to dive down for safety. “My ears were popping,” he said, no doubt from the low air pressure.
A Huntsville, Alabama, man tells of driving to work when hail so heavy that he was afraid it would break the windshield forced him to crawl under the dashboard for safety. Then, as he said, “the car was lifted up, flipped over and rolled several times. Finally the car was picked up into the air and came down on its roof, landing 40 yards from where I had originally stopped.” He surely was glad to be alive.
Documents and debris from Xenia showed up as much as 200 miles away! A woman in Cincinnati lost her cat to the tornado until it showed up two days later in a state of complete exhaustion. Apparently it had made a long trip back!
While the average tornado is a few hundred yards wide and moves along at 30 to 40 miles per hour for about 16 miles, they often vary greatly from the average. The most deadly one on record was about a mile wide, and slashed across 219 miles in 3 states at 60 miles per hour, killing 689 persons! That one struck almost 50 years ago, on March 18, 1925. This year’s April 3 tornadoes mark the second most deadly day on record.
Tornadoes strike in a number of other countries. But the United States has the dubious distinction of reporting by far the most and the fiercest, averaging 681 per year during the 1960’s. And there is a disquieting trend toward more twisters: a sixfold increase in the past 30 years! Last year witnessed a record 1,107. The National Weather Service says that “almost no one in the United States should feel ‘it can’t happen here.’”
Value of Tornado Warnings
No doubt the April tornado toll would have been much higher if it were not for extensive radio, television and civil defense warnings. Even so, tornadoes are said to be the most baffling weather phenomenon. Some National Weather Service meteorologists find their inability to make specific tornado predictions frustrating.
Explaining, one says: “For one thing, we don’t know exactly what causes a tornado. We cannot tell where it will hit or exactly when. All we can do is pick a large area and tell people that one might hit between a certain amount of time.” First, the weather service broadcasts a “tornado watch,” advising people to keep tuned for bulletins and to be alert for possible tornadoes. When funnel clouds are actually sighted, an official “tornado warning” urges people to take cover and keeps them posted about the direction of known tornadoes.
But after repeated alerts and no tornadoes “a lot had the idea it’s just another warning,” notes a Cincinnati, Ohio, survivor. Another remembers hearing that the “tornado warning” was definitely over and the newscaster saying, ‘I hate to pooh-pooh the idea, but all these warnings and nothing ever happens.’ Just then a look out the back window at a whirling mass of debris jolted her to the reality: ‘That is what a tornado looks like when it is right in front of your face!’ In less than two minutes her family’s home was gone. Even so, when they came back up out of the basement where they had scurried for safety, they were very glad just to be alive.
“Most people turn real good during times like this but others are ugly,” observed a Cincinnati police officer. When the family mentioned above was still standing stunned outside the remains of their home, looters began to appear—within minutes! Some even brought trailers to haul their booty away. The National Guard had to be called to protect many areas. One Kentucky guardsman was even seen to handcuff another because he had been looting! Some people patrolled their ruined homes with shotguns.
Sightseers invaded. The Louisville, Kentucky, Courier Journal reports that they “seriously hampered the efforts of police, rescue workers, movers, utility workmen and residents.” Damaged areas often had to be cordoned off to all but residents and authorized people. In Cincinnati, after turning away the twenty cars ahead, an Ohio state patrolman told two ministers who were checking on the welfare of fellow Christians: ‘If you were anyone but Jehovah’s witnesses, I wouldn’t let you by.’ They had to pass four more National Guard roadblocks in the same fashion.
However, the extraordinary human kindness that prevailed far overshadowed the selfishness of a few. Within minutes after the twisters passed, volunteers were everywhere, first looking for survivors, getting injured to hospitals, comforting the bereaved and taking the homeless into their own homes. Hospital personnel worked selflessly. Doctors operated by candlelight when power failed in Xenia. An ambulance firm in Huntsville, Alabama, ran without charge all night long.
The whine of power saws filled the air as volunteers cut up the tragic debris to ease removal. Groups of young people went from house to house, helping complete strangers to clean up. Utility men worked around the clock to reduce the hazard of broken electric lines and gas lines, and to restore needed services quickly. People walked the streets distributing plastic bags of food.
The complexion of today’s world is such that people are often bewildered and touched by such kindness. A frightened little elderly lady in Guin, Alabama, was coaxed out of her cellar after two days. She said: “This is the first time anyone has ever cared about me, and I don’t know how to act.”
No doubt most who witnessed the many displays of unselfishness were moved and encouraged. But another reality must be faced. It was voiced by a Xenia survivor as she sat in a Red Cross center: “When it’s over it will be right back to everybody hating everybody again.” And the thought must have crossed many minds: Why does it take a crisis to make people show consideration for one another?
Still others were forced to reassess what is truly important to them. One Alabama family, whose home “just exploded,” says: “We thought we’d had a real disaster ’til we heard about those people who lost their families. We’re rich compared to them.” Their gladness just to be alive brings home the reality of Jesus’ words: “Is not life more precious than food, and the body than clothing,” or any other material possessions?—Matt. 6:25, Weymouth.