It might seem from watching news of the American heartland the last month or so, and perhaps even reading many of my posts, that tornadoes are as common in the middle of America as fish and chips are in the UK. While it is true we have many more tornadoes than any other place on earth, they still scare us, and actually are not that common.
Most tornadoes don't kill anyone, they touch down in open country, may hop scotch along for a mile or two, tear up a fence and a few trees, maybe blow down a barn, or tear off a roof, and then they are gone. Many tornado warnings end up coming to nothing, the tornado either never forms, or hangs harmlessly in the air.
Occasionally though, a bright sunny day can turn into death and destruction nearly in the blink of an eye. Saturday was one of those days in Kansas, Sunday was one of those days in Missouri.
For the rest of my life I will remember what I did the day of the Reading tornado, and I will always remember the Joplin tornado the next day. Saturday I worked on building fence in a wide open pasture, on what you would call a "brilliant" spring day in Britain, the sky was clear, the wind just enough to keep you cool. As the afternoon went on cumulus clouds towered in the sky, first to the north and then to the west, flattening out on top into the unmistakable thunderhead we see so often. The least impressive storm, the one to the west, is the storm that ended up building strength as it moved northeast, after nearly falling apart about an hour before it formed a tornado.
I spent my Saturday evening under clear sky with few worries eating out with my wife at one of our favorite places, while 20 miles from where we were the sky turned green and a tiny Kansas farming community bore the brunt of natures fury, in the process one man lost his life,while many others lost their homes.
The following afternoon from my farm 125-150 miles away I could see the lightening flash in the towering storm over Joplin, the huge flat top of the storm was impressive from that distance, the unfolding tragedy as the evening wore on was hard to comprehend, even harder to comprehend was I could stand outside in clear weather and see the storm, so far away, with no fear of harm to me, even though it brought so much death and destruction to others.
The first thing you do when you hear of such death and destruction is thank God it wasn't you. I think the next reaction for most normal people is "how can I help?". I had seen enough harmless tornado damage to know what I could do was help clear debris, and by Sunday evening had a plan in place to go with 4 others from our town to help with the clean up, taking a skid loader belonging to one of them. The first thing that hit me as we got in view of Reading was had the storm been a half mile north or south, the town would have been spared. Had it raised up for just a half mile or so, the town would have been spared. It really wasn't horribly destructive over a very wide or long area, it just so happened the area it was destructive over was that town.
We got out of our vehicles next to the grain elevator and walked through town to the command center to register as volunteers, walking that half mile or so gave an overview of the town. One home might barely have damage,the next be marked as not habitable. Parts of trees and shingles and all kinds of debris was everywhere.
When we got back to our equipment, I simply walked to the nearest home and asked if they wanted help clearing trees. They were waiting on an insurance adjustor, so I walked across the railroad tracks to where an extended family was busy cutting up trees. All that was left was the frame of a mobile home wrapped around the trunk of a tree, the tree had been destroyed except for the trunk. All their worldly possessions were scattered around, most in some state of destruction.
A couple of us helped the man with the grain elevator get his pesticides sorted out, the other three ended up cutting up trees and removing debris for 5 households, all people we did not know. I had a chainsaw problem and was sitting on a log working on the saw, looked up and saw one of my neighbors walking by, she and her husband had also come for the cleanup.
By 6pm we were beat, the skid steer had picked up a nail or something and had a flat, so we loaded it on the trailer and walked to the firebarn where relief workers were cooking hamburgers and hotdogs, filled our plates and sat down with the volunteer firemen to hear their stories about the storm.
Like me, none of them had ever faced a huge tornado head on. The one who ended up setting off the siren said he was spotting at the bottom of a little hill and saw a huge green cloud, with what he thought was just a lower cloud. When it topped the hill he was just 2 miles from it. When the town was hit, so many trees and power lines were across the roads it was hard for the firemen who had been spotting to get back into town to start the search and rescue, the chief told me it was nearly an hour before they could shake the shock of what happened, and that with no street lights and so many trees blown down, it was hard to even know where they were.
It is hard to know or understand why one town gets destroyed, and others go untouched, or even more baffling how one house can be destroyed and the house on either side still stand. Some people would offer a religious reason, others a philosophical reason, us honest people will say we don't have a clue why life works this way. What I do know is that tragedy brings out the best in people, and farm people are always at the fore front of tornado relief efforts, a fact touched on by NBCs Brian Williams last night when he remarked that since Joplin was in farm country, the roads were cleared much more quickly because of all the agricultural equipment available.
Before we could even go into town we had to sign papers we wouldn't charge people for our work, of course none of us were there for that reason, but evidently not all of the residents knew that. I observed a man trying to pull a large log out of his yard with a pickup and making no effort. I walked over and told him we could cut it up and move it with the skid loader, his question was, "how much will that cost me?". When I told him we didn't come to make money tears came to his eyes and he shook my hand saying, "there are just so many good people around here". That was all the pay I needed.