The tornado warning sirens began wailing in my hometown of Streator, Illinois, around 8:30 pm local time. The National Weather Service had a report of a tornado on the ground in southeastern Putnam County in central Illinois, and it was moving into LaSalle County, aiming dead on for the southern part of town.
My part of town. I live on South 12th Street in Streator, about a block from Route 23, and as the tornado hopped, skipped, and jumped across the farmers’ fields and the occasional unfortunate corn crib that happened to get in its path, it eventually settled itself on to North 12th Road and made a beeline straight for my house. (Note: 12th Street becomes 12th Road on the north side of Route 23.) It was less than three miles away at this point, and at 8:52 pm, while I was reading the warning on the Weather Channel telling me to take cover, the lights went out.
The previous half-hour, it had been raining very hard with frequent lightning flashes and thunderclaps, but until the beast ate the lights, it seemed just another fairly strong Midwestern storm. In the heartland, tornado warnings and watches are a fact of life during the summer and I had lived through many tornado warnings in the past. Previously, the twister had either dissipated before it posed a threat to me, or it passed by far enough away that all we got for our angst was a big blow.
Not this time. As soon as the lights went out, the wind, which had been strong but not very intimidating, began to “come up.” That’s a nautical way to put it, because out on the open ocean the intensity of the wind builds and builds until you don’t think it can get any stronger — except it does. And then it gets stronger still.
The flat, open prairie upon which Streator sits has no hills to deflect the wind, so the tornado force gale that began to blow through my neighborhood reached us raw and untamed. It was here that incredible luck befell me. The monster — categorized by the National Weather Service as an EF2 (on a scale of 5) veered off North 12th Road and entered the southern part of Streator near East Ninth Road.
What vagaries of weather and atmosphere caused the tornado to spare me while tearing up my neighbors’ houses less than three blocks from where I live? You have probably heard tornadoes referred to as “the finger of God.” That’s a misnomer. A more accurate appellation is “the finger of Fate.” God, in his infinite mercy, would not visit such terror and tragedy on his children. Rather, as put perfectly by Helen Hunt’s character Jo Harding in Twister: “You’ve never seen it miss this house, miss that house, and come after you!”
And that’s the way of fate. A small, insignificant change in air pressure, or perhaps it was the contour of the land, or maybe it was something the beast ate that caused it to careen drunkenly away from South 12th Street and slam into my neighbors’ homes a couple of hundred yards away.
Two decades ago, there almost certainly would have been fatalities in Streator. Back then, we were lucky to get five minutes of warning. Now, with our new understanding of tornadoes — how they form, what feeds them, Doppler radar images, and an idea of their path of destruction — precious minutes of warning are granted those in the path of these killers. While 17 of my neighbors were injured, there were no serious injuries and no deaths.
The twister tore through the southern part of town, wreaking a path of destruction 400 yards wide. It didn’t sound like a freight train — the usual description you read in the newspapers. Freight trains don’t roar like a wild beast and beat holy hell against your windows seeking to get in. The rattling, clacking, and shaking of my brick house was augmented by the rending, tearing sounds of tree limbs snapping, the popping of transformers (sounding just like old-fashioned flash bulbs exploding), and a strange, terrifying high-pitched whine that made it sound as if all the furies in the world had been unleashed and were circling my home in anticipation of its destruction.
Then, a huge cracking sound and a thump. Half our elm tree in the backyard had split and fallen lengthwise across the lawn, brushing against the sliding doors in the dining room. Another couple of feet and it would have crashed through. Then there was another tremendous ripping noise followed by a crash as a section of our fence tore away and smashed into the AC unit.
Where was I when this occurred? I was standing at the top of the stairs to the basement in the kitchen with legs so weak that I knew if I tried to go downstairs, I would have fallen and broken my neck. So I stood there, not two feet from our large kitchen window, too terrified to move to safety, mesmerized by the scene outside that was now being lit up constantly by lightning. The trees were bending to near 45 degree angles. The small twigs and branches that were banging into the window were competing with the constant, driving, sideways rain that was almost as loud as the wind.
Most people who die in tornadoes are hit by debris from their own house. It was monumentally stupid to stand next to a window with the wind blowing near 100 miles per hour, but clear thinking is not possible when witnessing nature unbound. In retrospect, it has made me appreciate the ancients a little more who worshiped the power of the natural world, named weather events for gods, and though superstitious to a fault, had a healthier respect for what nature could do than I (and probably many people living today).
It was over in less than three minutes, the weather service said. Would that the perception of time contained in those three minutes could be transferred to everyday life. If so, it would seem that I was practically immortal. Hours would seem like weeks, weeks like years, and years as if they were centuries. Life never seems so precious and so desperately desired as when the distinct possibility you are going to lose it stares you right in the eye.
Cliches, all. But I would give almost anything not to have lived those three minutes. And I’m sure many of my neighbors would agree.
Touring the damaged areas on Monday, the reality of my close call was even more pronounced. One block from my home, dozens of trees were snapped off whole 20 feet above ground. These neighbors probably consider themselves lucky as well, because one block further east extensive roof damage could be seen in many houses with some homes just a mass of lumber, drywall, brick, and personal items piled high in what used to be someone’s front yard.
Another block over and even more extensive home damage. Here, the storm created havoc for one family, while sparing their next-door neighbor. Fate can truly be a cruel mistress for some, a benign force for others. The singular effect of the entire panorama where the worst of the damage could be seen was that of a war zone. The question that kept crossing my mind was: how did anyone survive this hell?
The cleanup is already well underway. The mass of insurance agents, bureaucrats, and service companies (tree removal services are doing land office business) who attend these disasters are already at work, translating all that people have lost into nice, neat forms with dollars and cents totals. No doubt those with insurance, or those eligible for government grants, will be grateful for the opportunity to rebuild their lives. But it will be many months before those lives will return to normal.
And it’s a good bet that none of us who experienced the Streator tornado of 2010 will ever be quite the same again.