Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Being Frank on the 50th anniversary of the Palm Sunday tornadoes

This is the 50th anniversary of the dreadful Palm Sunday tornadoes.  Ten tornadoes ripped through Indiana in the worst natural disaster I had seen in my short life in 1965.
We often complain about what the government does poorly or just wrong, but weather forecasting has improved dramatically in the last 50 years thanks to satellites and cooperation between the National Weather Service and private industry, such as The Weather Channel and Accuweather. I would imagine a much larger database of weather patterns collected over the years has contributed to the improvement. Also, events such as the Palm Sunday tornadoes have made us more aware of the danger preceded by dark, swirling clouds. 
People are still injured and tornadoes cost millions of dollars in damage every year but we do a much better job of warning people than in 1965 when the Palm Sunday storms devastated too much of the Hoosier state. 
We were at my aunt and uncle’s house in North Liberty when two of the storms hit far northern Indiana. “Liberty” the locals call it. The name was counter point to the helplessness we all felt when we learned of the destruction.  
North Liberty is west of South Bend in St. Joseph County. 
Miles to the east in Elkhart County the town of Dunlap was about to be destroyed by twin tornadoes. 
My cousins and I were outside when the tornado warnings came on TV.  
Dad and my uncle came outdoors and watched the clouds swirl overhead.  I remember them pointing to the clouds and discussing the unusual patterns they made in the sky. Meanwhile, emergency vehicle sirens could be heard blaring up and down the state highway.  
“We’d better go home,” Mom said. 
That made no sense, because it meant we would be in a car when high winds could pummel us with who-knows-what kind of debris. 
We lived about an hour northeast of Liberty. We knew all the shortcuts in between.  
On that Palm Sunday, National Guard units were parked everywhere. Our shortcut roads were blocked and it took much longer to get home that night.  
At home, there was nothing on TV that Sunday night except local news about the destruction everywhere. 
In the week ahead, President Lyndon Baines Johnson flew into Indianapolis and visited much of the Hoosier state in a helicopter. 
I was never a big fan of Johnson but when he flew into South Bend to survey the damage,our school classes watched on the South Bend TV stations and my impression was he genuinely cared about the people who lost so much. 
There were many rumors flying around about the tornado damage. 
My cousin, who was much older than me, drove a heating oil truck. Junior said people talked about fish being picked up from a lake south of Liberty and being flung across roads and into fields. 
My parents had bought an 8 mm movie camera a few months earlier.  Dad wanted a good 35 mom camera but Mom decided on the movie camera.  Funny how that worked.  
So the next weekend while dad worked, mom and I got into our huge 1958 Mercury wagon and drove to Elkhart County where the damage was the worst in our area. 
I pointed the camera out the window and documented piles of debris while mom drove by.  We weren’t alone. There were many other rubber-neckers doing the same thing.
I don’t know why we are attracted to the suffering of others but we are. 
Only some kinds of suffering.  If there is a traffic accident we want to see it.  But put someone in a nursing home and try to attract volunteers to visit the sick and lonely and few people are interested. 
In 1965 weather warnings largely consisted of a slide interrupting the local TV programming and maybe a blaring tone on the speaker to get your attention, warning that a tornado just passed over your house. 
Today we have weather channels on TV and Internet 24-7. Satellites fly overhead and show forecasters all kinds of weather information. Weather sirens are located in many neighborhoods. 
It’s not uncommon to see maps of the United States with wide swatches of orange and red ovals stretching across several states that show us the areas most likely to be hit by storms many hours ahead of the event. As I write this, such a weather watch graphic is on a map over Missouri where my daughter’s family lives. 
Yes weather forecasting is much better today.  And we are safer than we were 50 years ago. 

Frank Phillips is a reporter for The Brazil Times. His e-mail address is frank.phillips@gmail.com.