On a trip to the coast recently I enjoyed watching the wind send ocean spray flying down the beach. Not all winds though, are so friendly. Just today the news reported that an inland hurricane, a derecho, packing 100 mph winds, had flattened crops and destroyed buildings and property in Iowa. Last week, Hurricane Isaias unleashed wind and rain across the Eastern Seaboard. And a couple of days ago, multiple tornadoes ripped through greater Chicago causing extensive damage. As the old Jimmy Reeves song says, these were ill winds that “blew nobody good.”
Ill winds have been part of my history—and as a matter of fact, greater Chicago too.
I grew up not too far from the “windy city” in northern Indiana. When I was eleven-years-old on Palm Sunday1965, two tornadoes struck my little town. Twin funnels cut a swath of destruction killing 1200 people and flattening a trailer park just south of where I lived. There were a total of 47 tornadoes sighted in the Midwest that Palm Sunday. To this day it’s still considered to be one of the deadliest and most violent tornado outbreaks ever recorded. Some people in our town were not even aware of the severe weather forecast. They were sitting in church pews celebrating Easter week when they heard the roar of the twisters.
Unfortunately, the tornado season that year did not end with the Palm Sunday tornadoes. A month later, a tornado was sighted again in my town, on June 6.
I remember this tornado even more than the Palm Sunday twins, because it was the day after my brother Sam died.
Sam and I were taking swimming lessons at the YMCA pool when he lost his life. Though it happened a long time ago, I still remember how devastated my family was. We gathered together in the little living room of our ranch-style house, crying and hugging each other. Then suddenly, we heard an eerie wail rise up from the street outside, a sound that had nothing to do with our grief. Firetrucks were roaming the neighborhood and blaring their sirens. They were warning people to take shelter because a tornado had been sighted.
I walked out the front screen door to see the firetrucks passing by, and then noticed my grandfather standing in our yard watching the sky. I stood by him for a while, when another man strolled over and asked Grandpa what he thought about the weather situation. Grandpa just shook his head as if he couldn’t take one more piece of bad news that day.
Eventually, he responded to the man, telling him he thought the weather didn’t look good, the sky was too green and the air too still.
This was the first time I’d heard about one of the more significant warning signs of an impending tornado: the wind stops blowing. Apparently, tornadoes create a low pressure vacuum, something commonly known as the calm before the storm. We were all thankful when we heard on the radio that our area was given the “all clear” by the National Weather Service.
After I married an Idaho farmer and moved out west, I had to get used to the never-ceasing winds that scour these high desert plains. I’d get nervous when the skies darkened and the wind turned into a full gale. One year a storm came roaring through the canyon near us. The wind shook our trailer so much, a favored print by the French artist Jean-Francois Millet, fell from the paneled wall, and cracked the frame.
That wind storm almost sent me to the corner of the room cowering in fear.
I’m still afraid of extreme wind events, though today for an entirely different reason. I know derecho’s, tornado clusters, and increasing numbers of hurricanes are all signs of the climate changing. Just because we’re dealing with a viral pandemic does not mean this particular problem has gone away. But unlike a sudden tragic death, we can do something about climate change—and that gives me hope.