Thirty-nine years ago, on Tuesday, April 10, 1979, the town where I’d grown up was obliterated by a tornado. I’m missing the anniversary by a day, but then, I’m often shaky on hitting the right date—just ask my kids about their birthdays. I wrote and posted the following on my old blog several years ago, and was reminded of it when my aunt shared a photo of the tornado on Facebook yesterday. So I’m revamping this old post to share here, with some minor edits and a few additions, including my aunt’s comment on the original post.
I grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas, in the heart of “Tornado Alley.” Springtime was also known as “tornado season,” and everybody, regardless of religious affiliation, observed the season. At school, tornado drills were practiced year-round, with one or more kids in each class assigned to open the windows as the rest of us filed out into the hallways to crouch on the floors against the walls with our heads down between our knees and covered by our arms. Always very orderly and neat. We could have done it in our sleep. The sirens placed around town were blood-curdlingly loud, but hearing them every year—multiple times weekly during the season—served to create more apathy than urgency.
What follows is the result of selective memory, I’m sure, but it’s all I’ve got.
During Spring Break from school the year that I was in 7th grade, my brother Charles and I spent the week with our Dad, half-way across town from the home where we lived with Mom. I actually don’t remember anything about that day until we were watching the urgent weather report on TV. The local station was tracking a storm that was headed our way and the anchorman grew increasingly agitated. We knew Dad was on his way home from work and would arrive at any minute. By the time he came through the door the sky had grown dark and the anchorman was reporting that the funnel was on the ground and headed for us. He began yelling for everyone to take cover right as the signal cut out and the screen went to snow.
We looked out the front window of Dad’s second-floor apartment and couldn’t see anything but darkness filling sky in front of us. Tornadoes were also referred to as funnel clouds because the tapered to a point, yet what we were looking at was a sky full of black, moving, twisting storm.
An F5* tornado was bearing down on us.
Dad got us into his bedroom, closed the door, put us onto the floor between the bed and an interior wall, and pulled his mattress on top of us. Everyone who has heard a tornado describes the sound as a freight train, a herd of buffalo, anything overwhelmingly loud and frightening. I cannot now describe what I heard, but those descriptions come awfully close, and I’ve never heard the like since. Sensations of shaking and moving, breaking, crushing, ripping, smashing, and sucking wind all swirl together in my memory. Hanging on as tightly as possible to one another, Dad, Charles and I waited until it was over.
When we crawled out from under the mattress the bedroom was intact. I remember Dad going to the window, which was completely shattered, with the web of broken glass still in the frame. My shoes were on the floor at the foot of the bed where I’d left them earlier in the day, and I shook some glass out of them before putting them on. Then Dad opened the bedroom door. The living room was, well, gone. It was completely open to the sky, covered with debris from neighboring (?) buildings, and with a couple of walls left standing. We picked our way carefully across to the front door, hoping the stairs were navigable. They were, and we got to the ground floor.
Dad’s parents lived a couple of blocks away, so he sent us to make the familiar walk to their house as he ran to begin pulling survivors from the wreckage. This was in the age of free-range childhood, so allowing us to walk alone was normal. The fact that Dad allowed us to go in the aftermath of the storm, though, must testify to his being in a state of shock, or denial, or both.
The route was almost unrecognizable with the landmarks scrambled in heaps or simply gone. Live wires danced in the street and whole buildings were pancaked in a neighboring apartment complex. People were wandering around, dazed, not believing what they were seeing. We got to Grandfather and Grandmommy’s house, and I now realize that what we found could have been devastating. Mercifully, they were alive and well, and their house was still there. The houses on either side of theirs were gone, but theirs was mostly intact. Not only was my grandparents’ house fine, but the two Cadillacs which sat in their open carport were untouched.
Mom was at home alone when the tornado hit. Our home was on the extreme western edge of town, with only the football stadium and the middle school between us and “miles and miles of miles and miles.” Mom was on the phone with her sister Cathey as the sirens were going off. Back then the phone was attached to the wall and the handset was attached to the base by a long curly cord. As Mom watched our playhouse and the backyard fence blow away, Cathey urged Mom to take cover. Mom told her that she’d “be right back,” set the phone down on the kitchen counter, and went to stand in the hallway bathroom tub with our dog—with the door open (imminent tornado danger is trumped by severe claustrophobia). After watching stuff fly up and down the hallway she returned to the phone once the storm passed, only to find the line dead and a metal post speared through the wall right where she’d been standing only moments before.
Tornadoes normally skip around from one target to the next, so Mom had no reason to suspect that we’d also been hit. This was a mercy and certainly spared her much anguish since there was no way to contact us. Her family, on the other hand, knew for certain that our home had been hit, and had no way to call her. As my mother tells the story, the National Guard had already secured the neighborhood by the time my Grandaddy and Grandmom were able to get across town to find their daughter. When they approached one entrance to the neighborhood they were told to turn back because, “There’s nobody left in there alive.” My Grandaddy declared, “I’ll be back, and I’ll bring out somebody alive.”
Taking Grandmom home, Grandaddy got his gun and his neighbor, Mr. White, and returned to find Mom. When he did find her alive he asked, “Where are the babies?” meaning my brother and me. Mom told him that we were with Dad at the French Quarter apartments. Grandaddy went to the National Guardsman on the corner to ask what the news was for that particular area and was told, “Wiped out.” He didn’t tell Mom. It took them 5 hours to get back to his home, by which time Dad had gotten us there, safe and sound.
my Aunt LaRue commented the first time I shared this memory:
“I remember so well seeing the news reports, hearing which parts of town were hit, and knowing that members of my family were right in the line of fire. It was hours before we could get any communication to learn the fate of my loved ones. I was a brand new Christian at the time and learned my very first lesson in trusting God that week.
Every member of my family was affected by that tornado. In addition to you, Charles, and Bill, Mother and Dad’s house did sustain major damage to the roof and the bedroom wing. Marilyn’s home was destroyed, and as it exited the city, the tornado slapped my Dad’s plant and did some damage there.
All the wicked weather we have seen is just one more evidence of the power of God. Weather is one thing the environmentalists nor the government, nor the scientists can do anything about.”
As I prepared to write this, I looked up the rating system for tornadoes in order to inform myself. The Fujita Scale which was developed to measure tornadoes considers damage as well as wind speed. Evidently there is some disagreement whether the tornado I experienced was an F4 or F5, as the determination can be somewhat subjective. They may measure damage levels, but somehow there’s no mention of straw driven through telephone poles or pink insulation and bits of debris being found inside sealed bottles of Coca-Cola (yup- true). And yet I was sobered as I read the website’s discussion on this point when I came across this sentence, “The Seymour tornado was in the same family as the devastating Wichita Falls, Texas tornado, which remains as of this writing, the most damaging in US history.” (emphasis mine)
That would be my tornado.
Many years have passed since that day. Wichita Falls has been rebuilt, mostly. Mom, Charles, and I moved to San Antonio the next year because Mom and my brother could no longer bear the sound of the sirens in the spring. I’ve moved away from Texas entirely, gotten married, had a family, returned to Texas, and experienced and learned so many new things. In Pennsylvania the volunteer fire departments employ the very same sirens to call out help when a fire is called in; it took a few years for me to hear them without my hair standing on end. I’ve lived through hurricanes in Florida, which, frankly, I’ll take over a tornado any day. Hearing news of tornadoes each year always sparks memories. Though my tornado remains a record-holder, the rating on the Fujita Scale doesn’t matter a whit if your house is leveled or if you lose loved ones.
Something else I’ve learned is that God is sovereign over his creation. I cannot hope to fully comprehend his ways. Yet, even still, I trust him. He may do things which I can’t understand: things which challenge my faith. But this I know and believe to the depths of my being: He moved heaven and earth to save me from my sin through the death of his Son, Jesus Christ, and it is by his power alone that I will make it safely to heaven.
“Behold, God is exalted in his power;
who is a teacher like him?
Who has prescribed for him his way,
or who can say, ‘You have done wrong’?
“Remember to extol his work,
of which men have sung.
All mankind has looked on it;
man beholds it from afar.
Behold, God is great, and we know him not;
the number of his years is unsearchable…
Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds,
the thunderings of his pavilion?
Behold, he scatters his lightning about him
and covers the roots of the sea.
For by these he judges peoples;
he gives food in abundance.
He covers his hands with the lightning
and commands it to strike the mark.
Its crashing declares his presence…
“At this also my heart trembles
and leaps out of its place.
Keep listening to the thunder of his voice
and the rumbling that comes from his mouth.
Under the whole heaven he lets it go,
and his lightning to the corners of the earth.
After it his voice roars;
he thunders with his majestic voice,
and he does not restrain the lightnings when his voice is heard.
God thunders wondrously with his voice;
he does great things that we cannot comprehend.
For to the snow he says, ‘Fall on the earth,’
likewise to the downpour, his mighty downpour…
From its chamber comes the whirlwind,
and cold from the scattering winds.
By the breath of God ice is given,
and the broad waters are frozen fast.
He loads the thick cloud with moisture;
the clouds scatter his lightning.
They turn around and around by his guidance,
to accomplish all that he commands them
on the face of the habitable world.
Whether for correction or for his land
or for love, he causes it to happen.”
(Job 36:22- 37:13)
[There is some disagreement as to whether our storm was an F4 or an F5- some of the damage suggests the larger.]
There’s even a youtube video- Terrible Tuesday.