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Tornados: On the Edge of the Strange

Memorial  Day Weekend 2024

Dedicated to the memory of Paul Eno

In the time it took me to write, record and finally post this offering, there have been 4 days of unrelenting tornadic weather somewhere in the U.S. As of this moment, at least 30 more people have been killed in almost a dozen states. I’m writing in the shadow of those losses.

The core of this blog is based on an article I wrote back in 2012 for the now defunct online journal The Examiner–which became Axios when it sold out. I submitted articles of regional and paranormal interest and the article received a fair amount of attention. So, here it is updated and expanded. Have fun!

For people who live in one of the tornado alleys in the United States, tornadoes are simply a fact of life. My East Coast friends alternate being amused and horrified by my annual obsession with the tornado outbreaks that generally begin in late March and last into the summer. They like to pretend that tornadoes don’t happen here in New York, but of course, they are wrong.

That being said, most people who live in the large internal swath of the country where tornadoes most commonly occur actually don't encounter one. Even if one’s county comes under a tornado warning, an indication from the National Weather Service that conditions have produced a possible tornado, chances are you won't see it. In fact, the chances that any particular spot may be impacted by a tornado is measured on a one time per thousand year scale

Still, it is true that the greater metropolitan area of Oklahoma City has been hit more than any other place, at least in recent memory, a fact that has given rise to a raft of ironic and painful memes and rumors on social media. (It’s probably because the city sits in the geographic ‘eye’ or center of the spring ‘tornado alley’ that there’s a higher probability of it being hit). 

That being said, Texas generally has the most reported tornadoes, with Kansas and Oklahoma vying for 2nd and 3rd place (switches back and forth almost yearly) with Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska rounding out the top five locations. 

Kansas, which of course became famous for its tornadoes due the classic depiction of one in the movie ‘The Wizard of Oz’, has recorded the most F5 or EF5 tornadoes and still holds the record for the most extreme weather events in a 24 period in one location as well. 

Codell, Kansas (Rooks County) was hit three years in a row, from 1916-1918 by tornadoes on the very same day of the year, May 20. The town, now unincorporated, was largely abandoned after the third strike and now hosts a population of 49 people (2020 census).

Strictly speaking, tornadoes are caused by unstable air created by heating, the jet stream and the collision of weather fronts. The middle United States has the perfect geographical and atmospheric conditions for creating all kinds of storms, many of which can and do produce meso-cyclones, vortices and tornadoes. 

Tornadoes can, however, occur in every state of the union, and do occur in many other parts of the world, including Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, South America and Africa. Hurricanes can whip them up and there are many other climatic conditions that can produce them. It is true, however, that the United States produces tornadoes more consistently than any other country on earth.

In fact, researchers from all over the world come to the U.S. to study our weather because of the variety and intensity of the storms produced in the Plains. Dr. Fujita, the man whose name is used to describe wind damage caused by tornadoes, came to the U.S. from Japan after studying damage produced by both hurricanes and the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

The excellent PBS documentary about Dr Ted (Maiko) Fujita, Mr Tornado tells the story of how Dr Fujita became the first person to understand how to begin studying the interior mechanics of tornadic and other wind storms by closely examining damage patterns on the ground. His work led to the development of the Fujita Scale and Enhanced Fujita Scale, still used today to rate tornadic wind speed and strength.

I’ve always found that a fascinating juxtaposition, i.e. the damage produced by atomic weapons and that produced by tornadoes combining in one man’s mind to dramatic scientific effect.. Most experts maintain that the average tornadic storm, which typically lasts about 40 minutes, releases about 600x more energy than the bomb which took out Hiroshima. That’s the average tornadic storm. 

It’s not surprising then that tornadoes, because of their destructive potential and the fact that when they do hit an urban center (or a farmstead) nothing can be done to minimize the damage except to run and take shelter, makes them compelling and scary. 

There is much about tornadoes, particularly the really powerful ones, that is still unknown and this makes them perfect for stories, and even myths about their origin and purpose. 

Tornadoes were known and described in different ways by the Indigenous peoples in North America long before the National Weather Service began collecting records. One story, shared by natives in Oklahoma, tells the story of Cyclone Boy. 

A young man with problems controlling his anger is put into a hut and given instruction to control and channel his rage. But his anger at being trapped overwhelms the structure and explodes the hut and he escapes. His anger cannot be stopped and sometimes, he returns from the sky to wreak destruction on the earth, since his anger comes from a dark, forbidden place. The Creator keeps hold of part of him, so his anger doesn't destroy the world entirely. 

The Shawnee claim they have made friends with the tornadoes, something they would have to do having been removed to Oklahoma, and say that the twisters rarely pay their reservations a visit. This was recently put to the test during the 2013 Moore, OK tornado outbreak when the Shawnee reservations were among those places directly hit by a tornado.

My paternal grandfather passed down a tornado deflecting technique to my father which was passed down to me and that I have used on occasion. So far so good on that one–especially since I seem to have a tornado karma that follows me around (I’ve been in six where I’ve had to take cover).

The Seneca of the Haudenosaunee, claim that it is possible to befriend the Whirlwind by acknowledging its power and submitting to it. Young warriors who greeted it in this way would be given extra power in battle and protection from its devastating winds. 

The Caddo link the tornado to Coyote and the coming of death to human beings. That being said, they don't necessarily view tornadoes as evil in and of themselves.

Cherokee legend often ties tornadic storms to stories of the Uketana serpents, beings that are said to live alongside humans but with a different destiny. Uketana serpents don't necessarily care a great deal about what happens to humans since they regard humans as arrogant and destructive in their own right. The Cherokee counseled respect and homage to earth and air beings that shared space with them so that they might be spared from wrath and possible damage.

The 1966 Topeka tornado, which I’ll discuss a little below, upended the assumptions of a similar story that was attributed to the famous Potawatomi chief, Abram B Burnett (Nan-Wesh-Mah), who lived in the settlement era city of the late 19th century. 

Chief Burnett, as he was called, and who was a direct descendent of Chief Topinabee, one of the war leaders allied with the great Shawnee prophet and war leader, Tecumseh claimed that a number of Potawatomi warriors had been killed in a tornado and were buried at the top of a large geological mound (it is not a man made feature) in the SW part of the what became Topeka (from a Kansa-Osage word which literally meant “a good place to dig potatoes”).

Chief Burnett said that the souls of those warriors would protect the settlement from tornadoes as long as the mound itself was not disturbed in any way. In the early 1960’s, the good fathers of the rapidly expanding city decided to cut into the mound and build a water tower/tank on its crest. It is perhaps a matter of supreme irony (and possible prophecy fulfillment) that when the F5 tornado that devastated Topeka in 1966 entered the city, it came right over the top of Burnett’s mound and the water tower itself and took first aim at the housing developments built upon its base.

Modern Americans have created their own legends about tornadoes: tornadoes don't cross rivers (false), hills or mountains will protect you (false), hiding under highway overpasses will protect you (false and very dangerous), opening windows will prevent houses from exploding (false) and the Twister movie was accurate (extremely false..incidentally, the animation wasn't even that good).

Some truly remarkable things do occur in strong tornadoes. There probably is mathematics to describe some of these events, but physicists haven't yet come up with the calculations. Two personal favorites which occurred during the massive EF5 tornado that hit Topeka, KS in 1966 and is still ranked in the top 10 most expensive tornadoes in U.S. history include: the air pressure and wind velocity were so intense that soda was sucked from sealed bottles, without popping the caps on the bottles themselves and a bath towel was driven through a solid wooden door with such force that it could not be removed by a grown man. 

These are the storms that can peel asphalt off roads and virtually turn cars inside out, literally. One of the criteria for an EF5 event is that "incredible phenomena will occur."

Individuals who have been caught up in these storms will often report other remarkable things, including, in some instances, an interesting upsurge in what seems to be, at least from some descriptions, a precognitive or, at least, intuitive awareness of either the storm's approach or what to do to survive it. 

These reports are too numerous to discount as simple coincidence although they are not often recorded by meteorologists but remain a part of local/oral tradition regarding storms. Many of these instances are incidentally recounted by Bonar Menninger in his book, And Hell Followed With It: Life and Death in a Kansas Tornado, and have been noted by this author and others when recording the cultural aftermath of large tornadic events.

Tornado dreams and images also are very much part of the cultural and mental landscape of the Plains. Some of the stereotypical imagery is familiar to many Americans via movies like Wizard of Oz and Twister, but these do not speak to the popular cultural images of the tornado that crop up in Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas and Colorado. 

Tornadoes are often seen as metaphors for impending change, chaos, concentrated power and even the need to accept God's destructive judgment against humanity. In the Plains, people dream and have long conversations about tornadoes.

Tornadoes are featured in poems, paintings, sculpture and advertising logos and are even used as team mascots. In a recent conversation overheard at Mirabai books in Woodstock, NY, a round of strong, damaging Hudson Valley Storms in which a tornado may have touched down outside of Albany a few years ago were linked to legislative fights over fracking.

In my life, the presence and reality of tornadoes has played a powerful role in my dreams-e.g. the size, color, overall appearance and frequency of the twisters, as well as my reaction to them, provides insights into the nature of anticipated changes. 

My fascination with tornadoes stems not only from my Midwestern upbringing, but from direct observation of the aftermath of the 1966 Topeka storm which killed 17 people, bisected the city and changed it forever. My grandparent’s farm was about 35 miles from Topeka at the time, and although they weren’t directly impacted, my grandmother’s sister, Norah, lived in the city and her apartment (which was spared) became a refugee shelter for a time.

A couple of weeks after the storm, my parents took my brother and I to see the aftereffects–yes, it was kind of a “sight-seeing” expedition. I was 5 years old and I remember it vividly and it terrified me. Whole buildings sheared in half–I remember distinctly a toilet hanging out of one ruined office space. It was devastating and completely traumatizing to witness.

In fact, as Menniger notes in his aforementioned book, Topeka, which was hit at the height of its economic development, has never completely recovered from the tornado. Many neighborhoods were never rebuilt, and there is a huge blank space in the middle of the city which once held new apartments and a park, but into which much of the debris was bulldozed. Much of the city seems frozen in time. 

As a high schooler in Kansas in the 1970s, it was common to refer to our capital city as “Tepucka,” a boring place that no one would want to go to, especially when compared to Lawrence (or Larry-town, the Republic of Lawrence–home of the largest university community in the state) or Wichita (the actual largest city–a strange place which hosts an exactly equal number of evangelical Christians and New Agers).

Recently, the government of Topeka announced a program wherein they would guarantee state sponsored and civil employment for young persons (they prefer married couples) who would promise to relocate to the city/state, settle and have children, becoming good tax paying citizens (I’m not kidding). Apparently, there have been few takers (btw–the personal property taxes in Kansas are pretty high).

Within about a year of 1966 I would have the UFO sighting (this time back home in Chattanooga, TN) that would change my life. In my child mind, scary things came out of the sky, and the two topics have been linked ever since.

Some observers have noticed odd light phenomena, or sometimes physical objects accompanying tornadic storms. Some claim to have taken photos or footage of these lights and objects. 

Harley Rutledge, the skeptical investigator of Project Identified, which I profile in another series of blogs, reports on several first hand accounts of lights/objects that seem to interact with severe and tornadic storms. In fact, it was an outbreak of tornadic storms that forced his team to abandon their initial survey of light phenomena in the Piedmont area of Missouri.

After the 2011 Joplin EF5 tornado numerous reports began to circulate that many individuals, usually, but not exclusively children, saw “butterfly” people at the height of the storm, leading them or family members to safety, providing comforting words, or in one instance, appearing to a young woman after she was injured to assure her help was on the way.

It was the late Paul Eno who first brought my attention to the Joplin butterfly people reports and he did one of the early survey investigations of the accounts and how the image and stories quickly became a socially relevant meme expressing the hopes for healing and protection in the wider community.

Although skeptics are quick to point out that Joplin lies in the Bible belt and that witnesses were probably only referencing “angels,” my question is: Surely the good children of Joplin knew the difference between a butterfly and an angel–wouldn’t they have just called the comforting entities angels–in accordance with their beliefs? But, no, they specifically refer to those entities as butterfly people. 

This is something I asked my brother who was intimately involved with the Joplin aftermath as he is a medical doctor and had 5 patients in the hospital that received a direct hit (one of his patients who was being prepared for dialysis was literally sucked out of the prep room by the tornadic winds and seriously injured–although all survived and were airlifted to other hospitals–my brother lives in a different town that was spared)--because he had heard some of these stories too and is very religious.

His response was a shrug– “People saw what they saw,” he told me. “They actually don’t attribute anything religious to those experiences–they say they are just grateful that something seemed to be watching out for them.”

There have also been numerous accounts of destructive storms being prophetically predicted by everyone from Chief Cornstalk (who also is associated with the Mothman sightings in W. Virginia) to the Pop Bottle boy who is said to have predicted the terrible tornado that hit Hazlehurst, MS in 1969.

There are also a number of disappearances associated with some powerful tornadoes, most notably the 1925 Tri-State tornado (the most long-lived and deadliest tornado yet recorded) and that of Joan Gay Craft after the 1947 Woodward F5 tornado which has been detailed here.

Some folks have even remote viewed tornadoes in order to figure out the mechanics behind them.

Tornado “junkies” talk about the phenomenon of “twister trance,” the tendency of observers becoming entranced by the awe inspiring movements and appearance of tornadoes (they are both beautiful and terrible). Watching a close or approaching tornado can induce a kind of stupor which causes people who are recording the storms to put themselves in harm’s way by underestimating the movement and proximity of the funnel.

The astonishing footage taken by “Clem” Schultz is but one of many examples of this, and the “trancing” problem is an issue that is part of the training undertaken by chasers and spotters–but even then, they have to remind each other of it all the time–which is why most chasers don’t pursue alone (although whole vehicles can become victims of this phenomenon).

People who chase professionally all have stories about the mysterious “powers” of these storms, the preternatural light shows, the truly strange changes in direction (which probably can be explained if we knew the bigger environmental picture and internal dynamics of the storm–but we don’t have that), and the extremely odd experience that almost all of them have had, from time to time, of “communicating,” or, intuitively tuning in with the storms: the funnels that seemed to turn towards observers once being observed, the strange feeling of unease or euphoria that often precedes a particularly dangerous encounter, even when all external factors appeared to be “the same” or “routine.”

Every destructive tornado that I’ve researched, especially those which have resulted in the loss of life, features accounts by individuals who either dreamt about a tornado strike, sometimes weeks in advance, woke up just “knowing” that something was “wrong” or “about to happen,” or experienced internal thoughts and voices telling them how or where to hide–sometimes in contradiction to what they knew of what experts would council. 

In fact, in many of the latter instances, if they had followed expert advice, they would have died. People have to remember that expert advice only covers the average generalities. Each specific tornado encounter is unique.

Although we know that tornadoes are natural phenomena, there are features of interaction with them, effects generated by them and the sheer amount of power that they release which have been documented to cause electromagnetic malfunctions in some cases which cause them to skirt a little into uncanny valley territory.

I’ve always wondered whether tornadoes, and other massive natural disasters, and our responses to them, before, during and after, reflect the permeability of the seen and unseen worlds, places where the sheer power behind natural forces momentarily blurs the line between physical and non-physical realities. 

Mathematics is used to try to describe these forces, but in many cases, when it comes to tornadoes, we don’t yet have adequate equations for what is observed. We are tracking forces we cannot see, or reproduce in a lab, but can witness the effects thereof.

I experienced this earlier this week when I realized that the track of the storm that hit Greenfield, IA was headed toward Des Moines, where the only cousin in my family I keep track of lives. I was monitoring several livestreams of that storm, and knew, in real time, when Corning and then Greenfield was hit–and then the storm moved toward Des Moines. 

Within 10 minutes of the Greenfield strike, video of the monster as it approached Greenfield from Red Oak, was uploaded to YouTube by the well known chaser Reed Timmer. Within 30 minutes, there was drone footage from Greenfield itself. 

By that time the storm had dissipated after hitting the outskirts of Des Moines, and fortunately, everyone there seemed to be fine. I felt dizzy, haunted, awestruck by the sheer brutality of something that could render air turbines into shrapnel and pulverize a town in literally less than a minute. 

We build bombs, but not even an air assault does this very specific kind of damage.

Whether tornadoes dance around the edges of something paranormal, there are certainly political repercussions when one hits a community. Whenever there is such a natural disaster, Republican state governments, who are generally disparaging of Federal monies, suddenly reverse course and ask for disaster declarations.

When teachers in Moore, OK (seriously, Moore has been hit so many times in the last 20 years I don’t know why people live there anymore) used their own bodies to shelter students from tornadic winds, they became heroes, and unwitting participants in the greater national debate about the importance of teachers, a political whirlwind if there ever was one.

Fortunately, most really powerful tornadoes don't hit anyone at all. No one has heard about the recent Rozel or Bennington, KS tornadoes, even though they were virtually as powerful as the 2013 storm that hit Moore, because they only destroyed isolated farmsteads. They were only recorded and observed for the wonders that they were. Cyclone boy dancing out his atmospheric mood swings over plowed earth, grass and wheat fields.

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