Monday, May 20, 2013

I Live In Tornado Alley

When spring finally rolls into our area, so does tornado season. We in Joplin, Missouri, are a little twitchy about this. Where we once were casual about tornado watches, we now cancel activities and glue ourselves to the tv for storm coverage. 

And when the tornado sirens blow, we MOVE. 

I was born and raised in Tornado Alley. Which is a misnomer, because it's no alley. It's more like a vast parking lot, stretching across much of the mid-section of the United States. On the evening of May 20, 1957, an F5 tornado ripped through the Ruskin Heights area, just south of Kansas City, destroying the high school, a junior high, an elementary school, a church, a shopping center, and hundreds of relatively new homes and other businesses. Few of the homes had basements, and there were no storm sirens. 34 people were killed, including two staff members at the high school. 

What was left of Ruskin High School - 5/20/57

My parents bought a home in Ruskin Heights a few years later, after everything had been rebuilt. I grew up attending Ruskin Heights Presbyterian Church, which had been destroyed in the tornado and which served as a temporary morgue in the aftermath of the storm. Warning sirens had been installed after the tornado, and everyone heeded them. Our home didn't have a basement, but our next door neighbors' did, and we headed there any time the sirens blew. We even had a key to their home, in case they weren't there when a storm came through. The schools were rebuilt, but if there were so much as a tornado WATCH, we were sent home from school (something we kids LOVED, as we might get sent home early once or twice a week during the spring).

There were other reminders of the tornado as well, such as the church member who was confined to a wheelchair due to her injuries (and who had had a young daughter pulled from her arms as she ran for shelter at the church that evening). The nail heads that attached the drywall to the studs in our homes were all raised bumps, as the pressure of the tornado had forced them to pop out slightly.  In fact, I was a pretty big kid before I found out that this wasn't "normal" in a home. 

And when the sirens blew that there was a tornado warning (meaning a tornado had been SIGHTED, for those of you who don't live in Tornado Alley), we hustled to a basement. Fast.

So, after many years of moving around the country, my husband and I moved back to Missouri. And the most important criteria I had for finding a house was that it HAD to have a basement. I may have lost my childhood terror of hearing those sirens, but I knew that tornadoes meant BUSINESS, and I had a healthy respect for their power.

Then on the evening of May 22, 2011, while a severe thunderstorm warning had been issued and rain was pelting down, a tornado was spotted on the Kansas/Missouri border just west of Joplin, and the tornado sirens were sounded.

We jumped into action, with the house rule of putting on tennis shoes, grabbing the cell phones, the car keys, and my purse, and heading to our basement.  Our cats followed us down, curious as to why we were rushing around so, and we shut the door and turned on the radio.

Regular programming was interrupted with the weather report. The tornado was moving to the northeast, heading directly toward our part of town. My husband and I exchanged glances and he said, "This is really going to happen." 

My daughter, then 12, sat on the floor next to the furnace (and the litter box), a large Rubbermaid container over her head, crying.

My 15 year old son, who had grabbed a bag of pretzels on his way through the kitchen to the basement, was stuffing pretzels in his mouth, crumbs flying everywhere.

I was madly sweeping up kitty litter, having determined the safest place in the basement was right where the litter box was.

My husband was listening to the progress of the tornado.

The cats were milling about.

The announcer began talking about the tornado being on the ground in an area known as Iron Gates. Then there was talk of the hospital being hit. We were confused. That was NOT the path the tornado was supposed to be taking.  I stopped sweeping and listened. The tornado had changed its path. It was no longer headed towards our neighborhood. Instead, it cut a swath up to a mile wide and over six miles long across the heart of the city. 

The high school was destroyed, as was one of the two hospitals in town, three elementary schools, plus churches and businesses. Nearly 7000 homes were completely destroyed, with hundreds more sustaining damage. 161 people were killed, hundreds injured. While our home was spared, our lives would never be the same. (You can read about a major way I was affected here and here.

Mercy Hospital, completely gutted.

Joplin High School

Beyond the sign was once
the high school, surrounded
by homes and big trees.

The beloved dance studio where
my daughter spent much of her time.

Sad little dancer.

Today is the anniversary of the Ruskin tornado. In two days, it will be the second anniversary of the Joplin tornado. We spent half an hour in our basement this evening when a line of severe thunderstorms brought the imminent threat of a tornado.

And earlier today, before it made its way across Oklahoma to us, the same storm that came through Joplin produced a tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma. News reports are still coming in, and it will be awhile before we know just how devastating this tornado was. I hope they feel the prayers coming their way from those who have been there and understand.

Mother Nature can be a mean, ugly, old bitch. Don't turn your back on her. Heed warnings. Be safe.

***If you feel led to give, please consider donating to the American Red Cross. You can make a $10 donation to the Disaster Relief Fund via text message by texting the word REDCROSS to 90999. If you wish to direct your donation specifically towards Oklahoma tornado relief, you can call 1-800-REDCROSS. Your local Red Cross office will also take your monetary donation.


  1. Heavens, Dyanne, what a scary experience. No doubt, your children and your town will never be the same.
    I, too, grew up with tornado watches and warnings, and tornado drills at school. Living in Indiana, my kids are now well-trained in tornado precautions as well. My oldest went to help with the cleanup in the southern Indiana area which was hit last year. Another son's coach lost 4 family members in that tornado.
    Our prayers are with those in Oklahoma.

    1. My friends in California just don't get tornado watches or warnings or drills. My friends in Missouri don't get earthquakes. I've experienced both, and I can't say which I prefer. Kind of a Sophie's Choice.

  2. Dyanne, you paint such a realistic picture with your words. I can't imagine the terror you must have felt.

    It is interesting when you think that each region has it's own horrors produced by mother nature. Here in the West, it is earthquakes.

    I lived through a few large earthquakes growing up and living in California for much of my life. Feeling the ground give way beneath your feet is scary but to tell the truth, I am more frightened by the thought of tornadoes.

    1. The very first earthquake I experienced after moving to California was the Northridge earthquake in 1994. During that, when I was watching the ugly filigree light fixture in our stairwell swinging like a medieval flail while the streetlights flashed on and off and the house shook so hard I could barely stay on my feet, well, a tornado sounded much better. At least you have some warning with a tornado. Yet in the middle of a tornado warning, I'd trade it for an earthquake in a heartbeat.

      Bottom line is, Mother Nature (the same one who brings us periods, no coincidence) can really be a bitch sometimes. (Then she has to go and bring us beautiful spring flowers and fall colors, and we have to forgive her her temper tantrums.)