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Tornadoes show nature's power to upend lives

By Mark Levine, Special to CNN
  • Mark Levine: Tornadoes through history seem like a freakish display of nature's power
  • But he says what's really odd is our denial of how vulnerable our lives, stability always are
  • Interviews with survivors of '74 outbreak show many never recover sense of stability
  • Levine: With mystery, caprice, harsh beauty, tornadoes show how life can change in instant

Editor's note: Mark Levine is the author of "F5: Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the 20th Century," an account of the 1974 tornado outbreak in the U.S.. He writes for magazines including The New York Times Magazine and New York, and is a member of the Poetry Faculty at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

(CNN) -- The tornado outbreak that ravaged the southern U.S. this week, exacting a particularly harsh toll in Alabama, can seem like a freakish demonstration of nature's power. What might be more extraordinary, though, is our capacity to pretend that disaster -- and the sudden upending of ordinary life that it brings forth -- is not part of our very fabric, what poet John Keats might have called "A partner in your sorrow's mysteries."

For those who suffer the effects of disaster, nothing good can come from the experience. For the rest of us, disaster is a valuable, potentially humanizing reminder of the vulnerable ground on which our dreams of stable lives are built.

Tornadoes happen. As a matter of geography and meteorology, the swath of the U.S. between the Rockies and the Appalachians is particularly prone to tornadoes. Around 2,000 of them touch down each year.

Whether ours are particularly storm-torn times is a matter of some dispute: Higher populations mean that more people live in the paths of tornadoes, and more sophisticated meteorological instruments -- not to mention ubiquitous cell phone video cameras -- mean that fewer tornadoes escape detection.

But tornadoes terrorized early American colonists and settlers on the western frontiers in much the same manner they send people scurrying for cover in their basements today. Despite our best efforts to heed warnings and seek protection, tornadoes offer unnerving evidence of the limits of our vigilance.

The previous worst tornado outbreak in American history began on the afternoon of April 3, 1974, and lasted until the early morning hours of the next day. Some 150 tornadoes were documented, mostly on the basis of the debris they left behind.

A half dozen of those were classified as the most severe category of tornado, then called F5, or "incredible tornadoes," with winds speculated to approach immeasurable speeds of 300 miles per hour. Fifty more of the tornadoes were severe enough to upend freight trains and cause loss of life.

In all, more than 300 people died in that outbreak, which spanned from Mississippi to New York. Xenia, Ohio, near Dayton, was half destroyed. As far north as Windsor, Ontario, eight people were killed when the roof of an ice rink collapsed on them.

The media dubbed the event the "super outbreak," and spent a good two or three days feeding the public's fascination with tales of miraculous survival and cruel misfortune. Before long, of course, the disaster receded from memory, as such things do, except among those whose lives went awry.

In 2003, I began a long project of listening to the stories of people who lived through the outbreak. In northern Alabama's rural Limestone County, a utility worker named Walter McGlocklin was called from his home for an emergency repair. When he returned an hour later, he found his wife and two of his young children dead beneath the rubble of the house he had built with his own hands.

Not far away, a pastor named Annias Green, who had been born into a family of sharecroppers, sat in prayer with his family, holding hands, when a tornado struck. His wife and one son were killed, and Green broke his back. Just across the road, Marilyn McBay, the mother of a one-week-old son, huddled in a closet clutching her infant when her house disintegrated.

Thirty years later, none of these people had recovered from their losses, or had regained the sense of security that the tornado had taken from them. All wondered why they had survived when others had not.

The 1974 outbreak struck in the midst of tumultuous times--not unlike our own. Gas prices were at record highs and the economy was struggling. America had only recently wound down its involvement in a divisive and demoralizing war. The presidency of Richard Nixon, beset by scandal, was entering its final throes.

When news of the tornado outbreak broke in the next morning's papers, it more than likely shared the front page with a photograph of heiress Patty Hearst wielding a submachine gun in a pose for her captors. It was an anxious moment in the history of American exceptionalism--a time when many of the ideas that the nation held about itself were being torn apart.

The people I talked to, though, had been going through their lives as usual--raising children, changing jobs, saving for a new car, mourning the death of a parent--when they crossed paths with tornadoes. No matter the scale of a disaster, and the ability it has to unify a society in collective outpouring of sympathy, it is a deeply personal event, an insult to ordinary life. The message that disaster bears is simple and stark: Everything can be changed in an instant.

In 1974, prior to the refinement of Doppler radar, the capacity to track tornadoes with much accuracy was fairly primitive. But even now, with their sophisticated means of identifying the conditions that give rise to tornadoes, meteorologists can't know a tornado is going to happen--or where it will land, or how severe it will be--until it has happened.

The precise dynamics of tornado formation is a mystery that many meteorologists believe can't be cracked. That is the terror of tornadoes, and their harsh beauty, too: They are capricious, they surpass our understanding, and they elude all efforts to control them. They are what we least want to recognize about our lives.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mark Levine.