Twister Aftermath in 'Tornado Alley' On Friday, a tornado nearly a mile wide demolished the town of Greensburg, Kan. The town sits on the western edge of "Tornado Alley," the flat region of the Midwest prone to devastating twisters. Guests discuss what small towns can hope for in the aftermath of disaster.
NPR logo

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/10046498/10046499" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Twister Aftermath in 'Tornado Alley'

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/10046498/10046499" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The residents of Greensburg, Kansas returned to their town today - what's left of it. Greensburg was almost entirely wiped away on Friday by a monster of a tornado. Residents of the small town are picking through the wreckage amid promises of federal assistance and vows to rebuild.

What's striking is how familiar this scene is. Before Greensburg, there was Andover, Hayshill(ph), Hallum(ph), St. Peter - all towns, where people crawled out of basements to find main street gone. Tornadoes can touchdown anywhere -just a couple of years ago in La Plata, Maryland. But Greensburg is on the western edge of that vast, flat swath in the middle of the country known as Tornado Alley.

Later in the hour, sex, power and politics on the Opinion Page this week. We'll talk about the D.C. madam. But first, the trip down Tornado Alley. And if you have lived in a town hit by a twister, call and tell us what it was like, whether and how your town recovered. Our number is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-talk; email is talk@npr.org.

You can also join the conversation on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation. In 1974, tornadoes terrified people across the country - 148 in 13 states. Mark Levine has written a book about the disaster that comes out next month. It's called, "F5: Devastation, Survival and Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the Twentieth Century." He joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. MARK Levine (Author, "F5: Devastation, Survival and Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the Twentieth Century"): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And the similarities between the settings today and 1974 are uncanny - an unpopular president, a slugger chasing a homerun record.

Mr. LEVINE: Well, I think that these types of events are always particular. Each one is different from each other. And then, I think that there are certain characteristics about disasters that tend to recur and be practically universal. One of those is the very vocabulary in which we tend to describe every aspect of the disaster.

CONAN: And one of the similarities seems to be that like the storms themselves, the attention focuses on the immediate aftermath of recovery in these towns, and that sort of goes away quickly, too.

Mr. LEVINE: Well, that is - that would seem to be one of the primary characteristics of any disaster. Obviously, very, very large disasters like Hurricane Katrina stays in the public attention for some months. But even in that case, one can reasonably surmise that the people who lived through the disaster are continuing to deal with the consequences, long after the rest of us have moved on. With something like a tornado, which is so sudden, so brief in it's impact, so total in its devastation, I think you go a rather concentrated version of that dynamic.

CONAN: Yeah. It's credibly local for the most part, too.

Mr. LEVINE: Well, I - not to quote myself - but there's a moment in my book in which I wrote "all disaster's local." We use it to play out, I believe, our universal fears about the possibility of sudden traumatic change. We use it, as you said, to absorb a lot of the anxieties about what are happening in other aspects of the culture. There's certainly a kind of fantasy of violence that's involved with our thinking about tornadoes. And then we move on very, very, quickly.

CONAN: These towns that you write about that were hit in 1974, are they bigger, smaller than Greensburg?

Mr. LEVINE: Well, the place I focused on was a rural or a semi rural area in northern Alabama near Huntsville that is probably a little, actually a little more diffuse or spread out than Greensburg. There's a central town, Athens, which is a sort of, you know, 15,000 population town, a county seat that was missed by the tornado.

Those who remember the '74 event - which was until Katrina, the deadliest weather-born natural disaster, I believe in the U.S. Since 1974, think of Xenia, Ohio, which was a town of about 25,000, which was about half destroyed. I decided not to write about Xenia for a variety of reasons, not to focus on it. But it became the public face of the disaster, partly because it was rather conveniently located near media outlets; partly because President Nixon in the last throws of his days of service, decided to give himself a little bit of that particular glow that descends on a politician when he tours a disaster area, and he chose Xenia as the site.

But the area I wrote about was a rural area, at (unintelligible) rural area, not unlike, I think a lot of places in the center of the country that we tend to associate with tornadoes.

CONAN: And in the immediate aftermath, you always hear people say, we're going to stay, we're going to rebuild, it'll be better than ever - did that turn out to be the case.

Mr. LEVINE: Well, the people that I wrote about, most of them did rebuild. I don't think that for the most part, they found that things were better than ever. But they might've found that things were much like they were before. In other places like Xenia, where they raised a lot of the town as part of a kind of urban renewal scheme, they got to replace their rather charming, small town main street with a, you know, what I think of as rather unsightly strip mall, much of which is currently vacant.

CONAN: There is a peculiar effect of disaster, and that it can - at least in the short run - inject a sort of economic boom into the area. Lot of construction going on.

Mr. LEVINE: Oh, yeah. I mean, I would even - I mean, I'm particularly interested in the psychological dynamics of those disasters. And I would say that it's sort of part and parcel with the economic boom you're talking about. I would say that in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, there probably is something like a collective adrenaline rush. There is something about a tornado or public disasters in general that allows people really to feel chosen, chosen for this kind of punishment. And then, of course, if they're are fortunate, chosen for survival, chosen to be spared.

And I think that - I think that there's often a kind of exhilaration that sets in immediately after a disaster. It's certainly by - it seems to be shared by the public that for a day or two can't seem to get enough of it and then moves on. But I think that what happens soon afterwards is when the cameras leave, and when you're left with the very real problem of a wrecked house or wrecked community, there's - and injuries and often, grief. You know, there's a deep, long depression that sets in, that's very much like the - I would say, you know - the payback for that intense exhilaration that follows the storm.

CONAN: We're talking with Mark Levine, the author of the forthcoming book, "F5: Devastation, Survival and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the Twentieth Century." If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-talk; email is talk@npr.org.

Let's begin with Elizabeth(ph). Elizabeth, with us from Wichita in Kansas.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hello there.

CONAN: Hi.

ELIZABETH: I was in a tornado in 1957 in - I was living in Grand View, Missouri. And the tornado set down in a little place called Martin City, and then it followed a raised railroad trestle for - and it stayed on the ground for something like three miles. And I remember watching it, and the thing that fascinated me - it was right at dusk, so there were still plenty of light - is that the tornado itself was white and it came down out of a white cloud. And then as soon as it touched ground it turned black because of all the debris.

And as we watched it go along, we would see explosions. And we knew that it was hitting transformers. And we also knew how much destruction was going on. It went through the city of Hickman Mills and then through Ruskin Heights. And we knew that all those towns were being devastated, and they were. And I think the death toll was in the thirties. It was just horrendous.

CONAN: And how did you and recover? How did the people on those towns recover?

ELIZABETH: This was not too far south of Kansas City. It was what we would today call a suburb. We felt like it was a big distance, but it was a suburb at the Kansas City area. One of the things that I remember so strongly is that life came to a halt, a total halt, for about three or four weeks. My mother left and went to work. I was a teenager, and my mother went to work in the disaster center. My father, who was stationed at Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base, you know, reported, immediately put on his uniform and reported for work.

And we didn't see him for a month because he was - they were working. It was - martial law was declared, and it was a huge area of devastation because it was this big arc right around the town where we lived. I remember that we were getting ready for eight-grade graduation, and so we started scrambling and trying to find clothes for all of the children that were ready to graduate. And we had to put it off for almost a week, but we finally managed to find relatively formal clothes, because it was supposed to be a formal event, and we went ahead with it. But we had to scramble to find clothes for everybody because…

CONAN: Sure.

ELIZABETH: …people had lost everything. And let me just say about Greensburg. I have every confidence that Greensburg will be rebuilt. There's a strong rural economy in that area, and Kansas economy is going fairly strong, especially with the introduction of ethanol. I think that Mother Nature has been hard on us this year. We've had very, very cold weather through the winter and then late freezes. And, you know, even though I'm a city dweller, when we drive out through the country, everybody examines the wheat fields and tries to guess, you know, how are they're doing.

But they will rebuild. I think it could be viewed as an opportunity. They can rebuild the schools with the latest technology. There are - you know, there is hope. It's been hard to watch the news reports.

CONAN: It must have looked awfully familiar.

ELIZABETH: Yes. Yes. And it was years and years before I was - I remember one time being in Portland and driving through the center of town and suddenly realizing I was looking up at a wall cloud and just about panicking. You know, like, oh, turn the radio on. You know, let's take cover. And everybody is looking at me like I'm crazy.

CONAN: Well, it's Portland.

ELIZABETH: Right. They're not used to the fact that we're very weather attuned out here.

CONAN: Elizabeth, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

ELIZABETH: Thank you.

CONAN: We will be back with Mark Levine and talk more about tornadoes in general. 800-989-8255, 800-989-talk. Email is talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today about Tornado Alley, the middle part of the country that covers more than a dozen states and which is particularly prone to tornadoes. After a brutal weekend, residents in Kansas and Oklahoma now face the tough job of rebuilding after the storms.

Our guest is Mark Levine, he's the author of the soon to be published "F5: Devastation, Survival and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the Twentieth Century." It's about the 1974 outbreak of tornadoes. Of course you're welcome to join us.

If you've lived in the town hit by a twister, call and tell us what it was like, whether your town recovered. 800-998-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also read what other listeners have to say at our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And Mark Levine, I was just interested - Elizabeth, the caller just before the break, and what you were saying as well - is there a moment when some of the people in towns you wrote about, particularly that town in Alabama, even stop for a moment to think, well, why are we here as a town? Should we continue, you know? What's the purpose of us being here?

Mr. LEVINE: It's a really interesting question. One of the things that impressed me about the caller's description of the tornado that she went through is that people often do describe their encounters with tornadoes really in the terms of religious visitation, like something other-worldly or supernatural is happening to them. They often - people associate events of weather with God, which makes sense if you're inclined that way. I mean, they're not - a tornado is not brought about by city council or whatever.

And I think that when you're in areas - regions of the country where people are likely to explain what's happened to them as the will of God, they're enormously dedicated to remaining in place. They might ask the question, you know, why did this happen to me? What is this going to mean for the future of my community? But one of the things that surprised me, really, in doing my research for this book, is that even though we associate this period, you know, of the last 30, 40 years with the kind of enormous post-industrial upheaval of population so that people are free to move anywhere they choose, they don't have to remain in places and that communities are not as rooted as they used to be, I found in many, many cases people who'd been through these incredibly violent tornadoes, suffered incredible losses. I mean, we're talking about a day in which there were 30 tornadoes that were on the scale of Greensburg, tornadoes that are basically not survivable events unless you're enormously lucky. People were living in the same spot they were living in 33 years ago. They might have been young then. They might have been 25 years old and now they were facing retirement, and they had stayed in the same spot. And I think that some of that speaks to the way in which we might understate people's relationship to place and where they grew up and to their communities.

And I think part of it also has to do with the fact that it's not like Love Canal. They don't assign the blame to a particular agency. And for many people, surviving a tornado is actually an experience that is very illuminating and that might even enhance their relationship to the place they were living.

CONAN: We're going to ask Todd Prafke, if that makes sense to him. He's city administrator for the city of St. Peter in Minnesota. In March 1998, a tornado left that town in ruins. Todd Prafke joins us from his office in St. Peter. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. TODD PRAFKE (City Administrator, St. Peter, Minnesota): Well, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I just wonder, what - does Mark Levine, what he just had to say make sense to you?

Mr. PRAFKE: Yeah, it sure does. I mean, there - it's amazing, the strength of the people and the resiliency. And I think what he said about assigning the disaster - it is really not assigned to the place. It's one of those things that happens and you make the best of it. And in St. Peter, we made a conscious decision that things would be better after that. And I think that's a big part of it.

CONAN: So why do you think people came back to St. Peter?

Mr. PRAFKE: Well, I think it's that sense of community. It's that sense of being part of the community with your neighbors. We were very blessed to live in a region of the country where we got help from lots of surrounding communities, and so it made it very possible for us to come back and for many of us to stay here. You know, we were concerned directly after the tornado was there might be an exodus from town, where people would take their insurance money from the destruction of their house and leave town. And, really, just the opposite happened.

People stayed. People rebuilt here. And other people came because they felt an energy around our community that maybe they didn't feel other places. And so I think that was a substantial benefit in the growth of our community.

CONAN: Has the town fully recovered? It's been almost 10 years.

Mr. PRAFKE: You know, when you say fully recovered, it depends on how you define that. You know, St. Peter had been well known for tree-lined streets. And at the time of the tornado, the Department of Natural Resources had thought that we had lost between 15,000 and 16,000 trees. So I don't know that we've recovered from that standpoint. But I think if you look throughout the community, it's pretty difficult - trees aside - to find a spot where we aren't better than we were before, where we aren't more well planned, where houses look poor. All those kind of things have been repaired and made better.

CONAN: It sounds almost as if you're describing a condition unto which people felt they were being tested and rose to the challenge.

Mr. PRAFKE: Oh, I think that's very true. And again, that bond of community and the spirit of cooperation is probably stronger now than it was before the tornado. The tornado and the recovery efforts made us have good habits about how we communicate and how we talk, not just from person to person but from the city to the college to the county to the school district, and how we work together. And it has potential to be a very great thing and has really turned out to be, in some aspects of it, a blessing for us. And now we move into the future.

CONAN: Yet of course you also know - where the town is, this could happen again.

Mr. PRAFKE: Oh, yeah. It sure could. You know, we're situated in a valley, the Minnesota River Valley. And so there had always been the old wife's tale that, well, tornadoes don't happen in the river valley. Well, of course, that's not true. We found that out firsthand. But it's not something that people ponder on a day-to-day basis.

One thing that is true is that maybe different than some of our neighbors who haven't had a tornado is that when the tornado sirens ring in St. Peter, we go to the basement. We don't stand out in the deck with our video camera, or most of us don't. We really do go to the basement.

CONAN: Todd Prafke, thanks very much. And we hope you'll stay out of your basement for the rest of the spring anyway.

Mr. PRAFKE: All right. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Todd Prafke, the city administrator for the city of St. Peter, Minnesota, talking to us from his office there in St. Peter. If you'd like to see pictures of the tornado damage in St. Peter, you can visit our Web site, npr.org/talk. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Virginia, Virginia with us from Tucson, Arizona.

VIRGINIA (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air.

VIRGINIA: Oh, wonderful. Well, I was born in Greensburg a long time ago, back during the Dust Bowl. I felt pretty lucky to get here at all, given the situation at that time. And then, for years, I would just joke and say, well, I'm from Greensburg, Kansas, home of the world's biggest hand-dug well and everything was uphill from there.

But what your gentleman just would seem to bode well for Greensburg. When we moved there, the question wasn't do you go to church, it's what church do you go to. And my father was the superintendent of schools way back then. And he always - he was - when you move into a small town, you need to be something of a politician, so he always joined the church that the board of education president went to. And they are people of great faith, and I'm desperate now to get some information on who didn't survive because I don't - I haven't been there for a long time, but my family still knows a lot of people there.

CONAN: And it still may be sometime because some of the structures, as we understand, are just still too dangerous for people to go into.

VIRGINIA: Oh. There is just no way to - how would you look for a body in that mess, or a live person or anything? It's just - I haven't lived in the Midwest, and the gentleman on the news just said he was moving to Arizona. There is something to that argument. But it's kind of like I've had the pins knocked out from under me.

CONAN: Virginia, thanks so much for the call.

VIRGINIA: Thank you.

CONAN: And we talk about the destruction's psychological effect, Mark Levine. Yet of course it's people that we're talking about, and lives of people. And I know you tell some powerful stories of people who couldn't bring themselves to even talk to reporters and tell what happened for decades afterwards.

Mr. LEVINE: Right. Well, that's part of the effect of the sudden disappearance of the deluge of attention that follows immediately after tornado. People have to return to their lives. That involves healing from injuries and rebuilding their homes and dealing with their scars and their grief. And there's not any easy way to…

CONAN: And we're obviously having a technical difficulty with our connection with our bureau in New York, where Mark Levine is with us. In the meantime, let's just connect back with him in just a moment. But let's get another caller on the line. This is Matt, Matt, with us from Philadelphia.

MATT (Caller): How are you doing, Neal?

CONAN: All right. Very well.

MATT: Mark had just mentioned something about, you know, the scars of a community. From the point of view I can't - I was in Newton Falls Ohio.

Mr. LEVINE: Lo.

CONAN: Excuse me, Mark. We - we had a technical interruption there. We've got another caller on the line, Matt from Philadelphia. Go ahead, Matt.

MATT: I was in Newton Falls, Ohio, the grade school and we lost a few people in a Tornado that went thought Newton Falls, Ohio, then it's kind of a suburb with Youngstown, Ohio. Mark was just mentioning about the this scar of a community. And from our point of view, we had some councilors come in and people that were talking to the very small Catholic school that I was a member to - Saints Mary and Joseph School. And we don't see so much as, you know, we didn't experience anybody moving or leaving or anything like that that we've seen in the community as we stayed there and I was growing up,. You know, the new high school that goes in the new restaurants after they were lost, and the community - you see that face of the community that's new. And so with regards to like the infrastructure, you get a feeling like that, but it something that everybody talks about remembers. And as I was growing up in - I kind of had a feeling of growing up with the new community, at least how it looked and always the conversation of the common experience that you find in many families is everybody has that story. There's a connection of the few good degrees of separation or somebody that had dramatic experience with regards the tornado that came in.

CONAN: Yeah. What about those kids, though, who are killed, and you know?

MATT: Yeah. April was one that I knew that I was close to, there were others but April Benzo(ph), her name. Everybody, you know, knew - knew her like I said it would - we really had a school were seventh and eighth grade, we were actually combined, we were so small. So it's a very personal loss for everybody in the community not to - as small as Newton Falls is.

Not to mention for that school in particular, the grieving process has this, whenever there's lost or traumatic loss such as death when somebody is that young… And for us as kids, I mean, some - you remember, becomes a part of your identity. So, I can imagine when you have something more than you have one when the numbers of compound were such a large devastation, and other places of the experience.

CONAN: Part of your identity Mark Levine, is that something that you would agree with?

Mr. LEVINE: That's what people said to me even 30 years later, people would say the tornado is just a part of who I am. It's as though, when the tornado comes through that - town, in some ways it insinuates itself into the lives of the people who experiences it and it just becomes a part of the experiences they carry with them.

CONAN: Matt, thanks very much. Appreciate the call.

We're talking with Mark Levine, he's the author of the forthcoming book "F5: Devastation, Survival and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak on the Twentieth Century." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And with us on the line now is Ted. Ted, with us from Clarkson, Michigan.

TED (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

TED: I just wanted to cover a little of my history. There was an outbreak in April of 1965, they we're Palm Sunday tornadoes. There was a whole rash that moves to Illinois, India, and Ohio, and I think southern Michigan also. And the situation for me was that a tornado came through in the southern part of Elkhart County in a - it's in northern Michigan line, excuse me, Northern Indiana, right on the Michigan line. And it hit a trailer park and all the emergency vehicles, (unintelligible) in the county went to that trailer park. And about 45 - half-an-hour to 45 minutes later, while we were all listening of the reports of this on the radio, another twister came through and about two miles north of there and hits us in a little town of Dunlop(ph) in Elkhart County. And by the time we got to the hospital, the first wave of people had arrived to Elkhart Hospital from the trailer park, and when we arrived and the first part of the second wave of victims, the local hospital is just overwhelmed. People - even the staff there, it just seemed like they're were in shock because it never seen so many people come in, in two waves like that.

CONAN: They do sometimes come in waves. Ted, thanks very much for the call. And on of the - the odd things Mark, is that we enjoy spectaculars spring weather here in the Northeast. There's apparently a high that's just sitting here and it's glorious weather, but you know that it's blocking the weather system's further to the West and helping to create the conditions - day after, after day, after day, more storms in tornado alley.

Mr. LEVINE: Right. I mean, it is part of the disconnect that we're allowed to feel. I just left the Midwest two days ago, I was actually in a tornado.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. LEVINE: Just over a year ago. Yeah, while I was writing my book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVINE: I would joke then I summoned the tornado to the town by writing the book but, it actually, you know, it wasn't that humorous…

CONAN: Went out there for a little color, you didn't expect bottled green, you know.

Mr. LEVINE: Right. Right, but yeah, I mean it's hard to, it's hard to experience in these beautiful spring days here in the East, what's going on through very large swat of the rest of the country in which, you know, happens most years. There are, you know, they are singular.

They feel, it feels like it's like a once in a lifetime event to be in a tornado, to go through tornado- but there are at least about 15 hundred or them a year in the U.S. Though the one that hit Galesburg, if it does turn out to be an F5, would be the first of that category, that most severe category of tornado.

CONAN: You even spoke, you met Greenburg, I'm sure.

Mr. LEVINE: Greensburg, I'm sorry.

CONAN: And that five, talk about that for just - these are relatively rare, thank heavens.

Mr. LEVINE: Yeah, I mean, the day that I write about in 1974 there we're a half dozen F5s that one day, and there were about two dozen additional F4s, which are a pretty considerable force themselves. But there hasn't been a tornado categorize as an F5 since the one that hit Oklahoma City in May - early May of '99. And these things, I mean this tornado from the report - the one in Greenburg was close to a mile-wide or even perhaps more than a mile-wide and these things can pretty much dismantle most structures that are in their path.

You don't want to be getting to close to one of these things. It would be - I mean, it might be like getting hit by a speeding freight train or having an airplane crash into your house. It's hard to - the analogies are a little hard to come up with, but they are quite extraordinary in their impact, in the specificity of the impact as well.

CONAN: And perhaps, we'll ought to remember what Todd Prafke was telling us, from St. Peter Minnesota. If you're in an area and you hear the warning - don't mess around, go to the basement.

Mr. LEVINE: Go and get to the basement.

CONAN: Mark Levine thanks very much and good luck with the book.

Mr. LEVINE: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Mark Levine's forth coming book is "F5: Devastation, Survival and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak on the Twentieth Century." When we come back from a break, the D.C. Madam is on the opinion page. This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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.