There are tornado chasers who look for tornados, and there are people like me who seem to be chased by them. I’ve never been hurt personally in any way by a tornado, but at least four of them have been close. By “close” I mean they’ve hit nearby.
I. The Most Unusual
The first tornado that was nearby was the most unusual — it had three funnels simultaneously dancing through the town a few thousand feet apart. That was in Manhattan, Kan. in the spring of 1947. I had returned to school after army days for my last year. I was in my room sitting there in front of an open window aware that a gentle rain was falling outside. Just then lightning struck the tree closest to the house (probably saving the house). As you know thunder can be heard caused by lightning miles away; this stroke less than fifteen feet away was deafening. Just minutes before I had heard people’s voices, so I ran outside to see if anyone was hurt. Nobody was there; they were probably still running. The tree itself still stood, but it had a big gash along the trunk exposing the white inner trunk down to the ground. Bark from the tree scattered all over the yard.
II. The Most Damaging (to Me or My Property)
In May, 1982 my wife Dru and I were on our seasonal migration from Arizona to Kansas. We planned a stop in Wichita and were driving along U.S. Highway 54 very aware of the dense black clouds ahead of us. Despite the menacing clouds we kept driving because we were expected by friends for dinner. Suddenly I noticed the cars ahead of us were stopped on the side of the road. In seconds we ran into a wall of ice — hail the size of golf balls. I hit the brakes and got off the road right at a farmhouse lane. I turned into the lane so the storm would be hitting the back of the car. The two outside rear view mirrors shattered right away; we sat there expecting the back window to go next, but it held. Our poor dog Casey lay on the back seat terrified by the roar of the fusillade of hail beating the car. In five minutes it stopped, but the damage had been done. The car roof and hood looked like Swiss cheese. There wasn’t a square inch that did not have a dimple at least as big as a marble. We drove through debris on the highway all the rest of the way to Wichita but arrived on time for dinner. The newspapers the next day described the tornado’s path; we had simply run into the storm on the back side of it.
There was such widespread damage from that storm that the next day State Farm Insurance set up a special claim center for cars, so I drove through it. They offered me $950 for the damage to my $4,300 1980 Chevy Cavalier and I took it. Best deal I ever made. By the time we got back to Arizona in the fall some of the dimples had popped out, and after a few months more in the Arizona sun they were all gone! I did spend a few bucks replacing the rearview mirrors.
III. The Closest
I remember this storm in 1965; it was wild and windy and continued as I drove home from my job in Whiting, Ind. to Munster (an East Chicago suburb in northwest Indiana). It got darker and darker as I approached Ridge Road in Munster not far from home. I turned over the ridge, passed under the power lines and into our neighborhood and home.
Soon it calmed down and stopped raining and blowing and people came out of their houses to look around. One lady across the street called that the roof had been blown off her garage. It soon became apparent that a whole string of garages across the street had been damaged. No houses were damaged — just garages at the rear of the lots. There had been a funnel, and it moved down the open area behind the houses along the power lines without damaging the power lines or towers that supported them. The funnel lifted over Ridge Road but came down again about a mile away in the picnic grove of Wicker Park leveling a long swath of big old oaks and maples before dissipating.
So that tornado had passed behind the houses across the street and over the streets I drove just minutes before. That was the closest one so far — maybe a hundred yards away!
VI. The Most Recent
Just a few weeks ago on Memorial Day weekend I visited my home town of Marysville, Kan. It was a nice weekend of family, friend and high school reunions — and one tornado. The tornado hit the northwest part of our small town in late evening on Memorial Day. It damaged several dozen homes in town and three businesses along Highway 77 before it continued through nearby farms. No one was injured, but unfortunately some cattle were injured and a few horses were killed. I was over a mile away from its path and had gone to bed and slept through the whole thing — including a twenty-minute blast of the town siren.
Fair warning — I’m going back to the Midwest again next year. If you are too, you might want to plan your trip for some other time than mine.