Having witnessed the devastating effects of numerous kinds of natural disasters, I can say that regardless of the way in which nature vents her fury, man’s edifices don’t fare well. In a matter of a few weeks last spring, I surveyed the damage done by tornadoes in three separate places. The only thing different with each situation was the location. In each case, the physical damage and mental anguish was identical regardless of the community.
A tornado, more than any other meteorological event, is unique in its compact yet incredibly destructive character. Even the largest tornadoes on record rarely are greater than one mile in width. From that perspective, a tornado is an exceedingly small force. Although a tornado is compact, it is ferocious and tenacious. A tornado doesn’t come close to impacting as many people as a hurricane; but those it does impact suffer more violent damage than most people who endure hurricanes ever have to deal with.
It is interesting to note that next to sustained winds over 100 mph and the storm surge; the thing most to be feared with a hurricane coming ashore are the tornadoes that many times erupt near the eye wall of major hurricanes. No one can definitively say for sure, but it was estimated that there could have been 50 or more tornadoes accompanying both hurricanes Katrina and Rita ashore back in 2005. Local people who lived through both of those hurricanes claim there were hundreds of tornadoes but the weather experts deny that is possible.
Regardless of how many actual tornadoes happened; the damage on the ground would indicate there were multiple tornadoes touching down for short periods of time in multiple locations. Even after a hurricane hits, the damage caused by a tornado will still be unique. Talking to people who were huddled in their homes or in shelters while those storms roared by, many of them described sounds and sensations tornado victims always speak about. Personally, I believe there is much not understood in the realm of tornadoes associated with land falling hurricanes.
This past week as I was driving up I-44 toward St. Louis from Springfield, I happened to look out the window and saw where a small tornado had hit a two weeks ago. There were the always present blue tarps hiding roof damage on numerous homes. There were piles of rubble where barns stood previously. Somewhere in the path of damage was a family suffering with the unexpected loss of a loved one who was killed by the tornado.
Just a couple of weeks ago we basked in 70 degree warmth for a few days here in Missouri. Sure enough, when a strong cold front came roaring through, the first tornado watches of 2008 were posted and Missouri had the distinction of having watch number one for the year. January tornadoes are very rare anywhere in the United States, but extremely rare in Missouri. Even so, when the watches and warnings started flying, I knew we would be in for a long evening.
A wise person can decide not to build a home near the Gulf or Atlantic coastlines; thus eliminating the possibility of a hurricane destroying the home. A wise person can decide not to live on top of a fault line and thus avoid earthquake damage. A wise person can decide not to live on the side of a mountain thus avoiding forest fires and mudslides. A wise person can decide not to live on the banks of a river or stream, so as to avoid the inevitable flooding all moving bodies of water experience.
Yes, a wise person can decide to live in a location immune from many natural disasters, but not tornadoes. Just about anywhere is a prime location for a tornado to hit. Certainly “tornado alley” in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas are more prone to twisters than say Idaho; but other than living on top of Pike’s Peak, nowhere is immune from the possibility of a tornado happening. Where exactly is one supposed to live if they are sincerely desirous of escaping nature’s wrath? About the only place might be Vermont, but even that state has its share of wild winter weather events.
Far too many times, the attitude shown toward those whose lives were uprooted by a tornado is that they did something wrong by living where they chose to live. Nowhere is this ridiculous attitude more prevalent than towards those living in the middle of the country. “Who wants to live in Kansas” was the refrain I heard for years when people heard I grew up in the state. All Kansas used to be known for was tornadoes, Indians, Dorothy and Toto, wheat and endless treeless flat land. Now at least it is also known for basketball and football teams.
When the unprecedented tornado wiped the town of Greensburg, Kansas off the map last spring, there was an outpouring of concern in this country that was unique and inspiring. For the first time, people wanted to help after a Kansas tornado tragedy instead of criticizing the victims for living in the wrong state. For the first time, the United States of America really got behind the cause of rebuilding a tornado devastated city in Kansas. For the first time, America proved what it could do when it sets its preconceived prejudices aside and rallies to help a city in Kansas.
Unfortunately, what happened in Greensburg was not duplicated in numerous other areas severely impacted by last spring’s disastrous tornado season. Many more populated places than normal were devastated by major tornadoes or tornado outbreaks last year. Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, New Mexico, Indiana and Kentucky are just some of the states which suffered catastrophic tornado damage last year. Americans have extremely short memories. Most have long forgotten the horrible tornadoes that plowed through Alabama and Georgia last March, including the one that killed numerous high school students in Enterprise, Alabama.
Last year, in addition to the outrageous tornado outbreaks, there were abnormally high numbers of both flash floods as well as regular floods reported. Historic flooding took place in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Major flooding took place in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Kentucky and many New England states. The cost to repair flood damage was enormous. Yet, floods never capture the public’s attention because they are not as dramatic as piles of rubble after a huge tornado or hurricane.
While parts of the country were enduring record floods, other parts were suffering through unprecedented drought. The states of Georgia, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia all experienced record breaking drought that in many locales still is going on. Last spring, before the summer rains helped, Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida had reached record low levels. Last spring, fires raged in the swamps of southern Georgia sending dense smoke through much of the northern half of Florida.
Last summer, horrific forest fires raced down the dry canyons outside San Diego and Los Angeles, California destroying thousands of homes in the process. Again, in October a second fire almost burned Malibu off the map. Also last summer, huge fires burned unchecked for months in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Although summer fires happen almost every year in the western states; the decade long drought has made them worse than they used to be.
Early this winter a series of storms pounded the coastline of Washington and Oregon with winds normally associated with a category 2 hurricane. The damage was also roughly equivalent to a hurricane. Millions of people were without power for long periods of time between Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. Within a week, the entire middle part of the country was paralyzed with an ice storm never seen before. Oklahoma was especially devastated by so much ice, it took the power companies weeks to get everyone’s electricity back on.
Although it turned out to be another very quiet hurricane season (as far as the United States coastline), there was still one small hurricane that made land fall in almost the exact same place as Hurricane Rita did in 2005. The area was still recovering from Rita, so the damage was worse than would normally be expected with a category 1 hurricane. Even twenty-four hours before land fall, there were no warnings and no one expected the storm to blow up as it did immediately before hitting land.
2007 was a very active year weather-wise in this country. If the average American were asked if the weather was “wild” the past year, most would shrug their shoulders and say they didn’t know. This is because there was little wild weather in the populated northeast part of the country. Even though there was a tornado that hopped through New York City; most people there would no longer remember it unless their house was damaged. In the absence of a huge hurricane, blizzard, ice storm or terrorist attack; the people in the Northeast cannot relate to the suffering experienced elsewhere in this country.
Images of demolished buildings in Kansas, ice on broken trees in Oklahoma, rivers swallowing up whole cities in Texas, entire towns blown away by a tornado in North Dakota, blackened hills and charred ruins where houses once stood in California and dried up lakes in Florida mean little to millions of people whose only daily concern is fighting traffic and seeing if their sports team won or lost. I hate to say it, but until a major natural disaster strikes the populated areas of the East Coast again; most people there will have little compassion for those suffering elsewhere in this country.
Whatever wonderful things come out of the Greensburg, Kansas tornado tragedy, I hope and pray they do not end there. I pray that anytime a community in this country is devastated by a force of nature, images will emerge quickly and be plastered on the Internet. I pray the major news organizations devote at least some of their precious newscasts to the plight of people whose entire lives were just turned upside down by earthquakes, wind storms and forest fires. I pray the major charitable organizations respond as quickly and in force as they did in Greensburg. I pray the average American is aroused by the images of destruction and suffering and finds within himself the motivation to help those in need either financially or by volunteering to help clean up or rebuild.
It is hard for someone to understand what a person goes through when they lose everything they have worked a lifetime to gain. It is hard for others to grasp the unbelievable suffering that is associated with the loss of one’s home, its contents and especially a loved one. It is hard to comprehend the scope of a disaster that may affect upwards of a million people or more. It is hard to capture the hardships people must endure who have no electricity or water. It is hard to experience all these things unless you have seen, heard and been through it yourself.
This past year more Americans than ever before got a taste of disaster relief, for they found themselves in the middle of one. I sincerely pray that as nature once again starts unleashing her fury in the coming months that we remember to help and pray for those who through no fault of their own, found themselves in a natural disaster’s path. After all, that is what America is supposed to be all about; neighbor helping neighbor and everyone helping anyone who needs it.