Friday, April 07, 2006

Toto, I don't think we're in Ohio anymore...

An important anniversary slipped quietly by me this past Monday. I can't believe I didn't think about it until several days later. If you're curious, or just don't have anything better to do some afternoon, Google '1974 Xenia tornado'.

April 3, 1974... during a 24 hour period, 148 tornados hit the South and Midwest. The Super Outbreak. As far as I know, it's still the worst outbreak in history. The theory is that several smaller tornados came together to form the monster F5, one of six F5 tornados that day, that hit Xenia, OH. That's a picture of it up there, as it was coming into town. It was on the ground for over 9 minutes, and the path it cut through the town was almost a mile wide. It killed 33 people and destroyed over 1300 homes & buildings. The city was declared a national disaster area, and the National Guard was called in. It took nearly 3 months to haul all of the rubble and debris out of the city.

But hey, Richard Nixon came to visit.

I grew up in Xenia. Lived there until I got married at 27 and moved to where I live now, about 20 minutes or so away. I was 4 when the tornado hit. It's sounds very cliche, but I do remember it quite vividly. I was in pre-school with about 100 other kids at the Nazarene church. I'd gone out to the drinking fountain and was going back to my classroom when the fire alarm in the church went off. Being the polite child that I was, I tried to push past the teacher so I could get into the room and get at the back of the line, but she grabbed me and shoved me in front, then started marching us down the hall. We huddled there for what seemed like forever. The electricity went out pretty quickly, but what I remember most is the noise. It was just incredible, this deafening roar of wind. I can still hear it in my mind.

Then it was over. No one in the church was hurt, although as I was looking back over news stories of the day, I read for the first time that a man who'd helped the teachers get the kids to the basement was killed near the church as he was trying to get back to his home. We sang songs, and the teachers gave us Cheez-its and cold tomato soup for supper. The memory of it gets fuzzy at that point. The church above us was destroyed. I'm sure there was considerable debris removal that had to be done before they could get us out of the basement. Pardon me for waxing religious for a moment, but it truly was a miracle that none of us were hurt.

I was one of the last kids to have someone come for them. My dad had tried to drive through town to get me, but the roads were blocked so he had to take the car home, then walk from our house to the church, about a mile I think. It was still raining. Somebody gave him a scarf to put around my head, and he carried me home. I remember looking back over his shoulder at the church, or, I should say, the enormous pile of bricks and boards that used to be the church. When I think about it now, the first thing that comes to mind is that I can't imagine what my dad must have felt when he first saw where the building I was supposed to be in used to be standing. My mom was fine, sitting at home with a friend that had been visiting that afternoon. My brother was fine. Our house sustained very little damage - we were at the very edge of the path the tornado cut through town. Some shingles blew off, and a tree in our yard was uprooted. My mom had refused to go down into our storm cellar, which as it turned out was a smart move. The storm cellar was tiny, maybe big enough for 3-4 average size adults to stand shoulder to shoulder but not bigger. The top of the tree in our backyard that fell landed directly on the storm cellar door. Had they been down there, there's no telling how long it would've taken someone to find them, and I can't imagine they would've made it very long, considering how small the space was.

Maybe it's silly after all this time... strong winds and bad storms still give me an anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I always breath a little easier when the month of April is over. K thinks I'm silly, but everytime there's a tornado warning in our area, I remind him what the plan is if one is spotted and we need to take cover (he grabs the boy, I grab blankets and pillows, and we jump into the tub in the bathroom that's in the middle of our house, him on one end, me on the other and the boy in between). At the same time, though, movies like Twister and programs about storm chasers just fascinate me.

In 1990, another tornado swept through Xenia. Not nearly as big, but it still left its mark. I wasn't in town that night (although I was supposed to have been), but it brought all those old feelings back. It's almost like my hometown has some kind of curse on it.


Teresa said...

I remember you telling me about that storm during college. I also hate storms...

Fraise said...

This is really well written, we don't get tornados in the UK that often luckily. Thanks for sharing :o)