MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
NPR's Noah Adams has been reporting this year on the effects of change in small towns across America. When a tornado roars into a populated area, changes are drastic and deadly and happen within minutes. As people in Oklahoma try to look beyond last week's storms, Noah takes us to a place in Ohio that knows about that kind of recovery. It was hit by a tornado in 1974.
NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: The town is Xenia. It's in southwest Ohio near Dayton. Xenia is spelled X-E-N-I-A and it became well known 39 years ago.
CATHERINE WILSON: Everywhere I go and I've been all over the U.S., if I say I'm from Xenia, people say tornado.
ADAMS: Catherine Wilson, she runs the historical society in Xenia, she gets a lot of questions about the 1974 tornado. Late in the afternoon April 3rd on television channel 7, a rerun of the Andy Griffith Show vanished, a radar image appeared lit up with storms.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV ANNOUNCEMENT)
ANNOUNCER: Persons in the city of Xenia and along a track just south of it should take cover immediately.
ADAMS: The wind was so strong it blew seven railroad freight cars off the tracks downtown. A thousand buildings were damaged, entire blocks of home lost completely. Hundreds of people injured and 33 were killed. If today you come to Xenia, you might not know about the tornado in '74. I drove through a neighborhood that had been nothing but shattered houses and slabs back then. Now it looks great. You might notice a bronze tablet outside city hall.
It says, in memory of those who lost their lives in April 3, 1974 tornado. It starts with Richard Adams and ends with Sue Ann Wisecup. In Xenia, I got to meet Jim Langan. The day of the tornado 39 years ago he was a rookie on the fire department. He was ready to help as soon as he got out of his basement shelter.
How long did you work?
JIM LANGAN: Twenty-four hours a day for three days.
ADAMS: Jim Langan will describe the worst moments of those days quietly.
LANGAN: Dug three people out of one building that were alive and found another lady on up Second Street, got the daughter out but the mother, we weren't able to save her so...
ADAMS: And Jim Langan, now retired, does describe one of the tornado memories with a smile. On that first day he didn't know what had happened to his wife. And then...
LANGAN: I seen this lady coming down the street with an umbrella. It was blown inside out and I chuckled and wondered who that was, and it happened to be her.
ADAMS: One saving grace was the time of day in Xenia, Ohio, 4:30 in the afternoon. School had been out for an hour. Catherine Wilson, who we met earlier, was nine years old, home with her sister, safe until she looked out the window.
WILSON: There was a big boiling gray cloud with all kinds of things flying around we thought were newspapers. They were actually walls. I had a little weather book and said, mom, is that a tornado?
ADAMS: The girls got into the bathtub, their mother on top.
WILSON: We heard that horrible loud - it's just an awful sound. And the glass swirling around, hitting all the walls. That was the sound I remember the worst.
ADAMS: Catherine Wilson still has tornado dreams in springtime and maybe anytime when she's under stress. She feels a strong support in this town for the people of Oklahoma, or Joplin, Missouri, but still needs to keep a distance from those storms.
WILSON: My husband is a news junkie and he watches it and says, oh, come out here, you gotta see this. I watched about two minutes and I said, I've seen that in person. I'm leaving the room, thank you.
ADAMS: Back in 1974, Xenia didn't have a way to warn people. This coming Monday, June 3rd at noon, the tornado sirens will sound, five will go off. It's the monthly test. And a new phone alert system can reach thousands of residents within five minutes. Noah Adams, NPR News.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
If you know of a small community that's dealing with change, either past or present, send us a note at npr.org. Click on Contact Us and put Town Journal in the subject line.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.