Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


tri-state-tornado

Ruins of the town of Griffin, Indiana, where 26 people were killed. (PHOTO: EDEANS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

A Survivor of the Deadliest Tornado in U.S. History Tells Her Tale

• May 20, 2013 • 10:13 AM

Ruins of the town of Griffin, Indiana, where 26 people were killed. (PHOTO: EDEANS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

At 70, Lela Hartman believed we would one day use technology to prevent disasters like the Tri-State Tornado she witnessed as a small child. Are we getting any closer?

The ghoulish, ongoing tornado storm in the midwest comes a few days before the anniversary of the Joplin, Missouri, tornado disaster, which leveled 25 percent of the city and killed nearly 200 people on May 22, 2011. However, memories can prove short—even for events like Joplin and this week’s mile-wide twisters. In 1925, the worst tornado disaster in history hit the upper Midwest. The Tri-State Tornado still holds records for spending the longest time on the ground, where it left a swath 219 miles long. It killed nearly 700 people.

“You know, I can’t remember that it lightninged and thundered, but it’s bound to have. All I remember is how dark it kept gettin’, and the wind, you know?”

Few survivors of the Tri-State disaster remain—a teenager during the event would be 100 years old today. But just before Christmas, 1999, an official from the National Weather Service office in Paducah, Kentucky, interviewed his grandmother, who had been four years old at the time and visiting her own grandmother at a family farm in Indiana when the storm hit.

Lela Hartman’s take on the storm is colored by a long-ago memory of an event witnessed by a small child. But her belief at the time—she would have been about 70 when the interview was conducted—that technology would solve the tornado problem is telling. Last April, numerous reports noted a study in Iowa that found survivors of twisters tended to be more optimistic afterward. The investigators chalked this up to either of two common reactions. One was a belief in a coin-flip fallacy: that if a statistically improbable event like a direct tornado strike happened, it would have lower odds of happening again. Nature had taken its best shot and missed, and that was that, goes this belief. The other belief was that getting through a tornado represented a test of resourcefulness and correct disaster response by each person who had made it to shelter. Having passed one trial by fire (or wind, in this case) the person would be well-equipped to survive any future events.

Hartman doesn’t talk about any of that, however. In a fantastic retelling of what must have been a terrifying day, she talks about the sky, her grandmother’s internal disaster response barometer, and the failure of many people to respond correctly, despite being longtime residents of a tornado-prone region. Mostly, she seems convinced that eventually we’ll just avoid the whole problem, telling her interviewer (“Presley” in the transcript, her grandson) that we’ll soon be figuring out how to turn twisters off remotely. Here’s Hartman enthusing about severe weather warnings:

wea00237

HARTMAN: I think it’s great. I—I’m amazed that people are that smart, puttin’ up with all this, you know? [Of] course, that’s in everything. It’s not just in weather. We have got smart people … on this Earth, and they’ve brought us a long way in medicine and weather and…. It’s too bad that we don’t have a turnkey where, when we see somethin’ like this happenin’, we can just shut it off, you know? Maybe one of these days, somebody will come up with one.

PRESLEY: That’s true, and that would be very interesting wouldn’t it?

HARTMAN: Yeah. Where you could turn the winds in another direction, or calm ‘em down, or something.

PRESLEY: But there’s a lot to be said for research and development when it comes to that.

HARTMAN: Oh yeah. They’ve gone a long way.

PRESLEY: They have, and we still have a—especially in meteorology and in some other sciences—they still have a long way to go, but….

HARTMAN: But they’ve gone a long way. … ‘Cause they didn’t have that kinda thing … back when this—well, I still want to call it a cyclone, but I guess I’ll call it a tornado—happened. We didn’t have—you were your weather forecaster. You watched the sky.

PRESLEY: This one was kind of … interesting, though, because it actually caught a lot of even farmers by surprise because it was so unusual.

HARTMAN: Well, it was. … It was such a pretty day that day. … And for March, that was a little bit unusual in itself. But then, after noon, when it began to turn dark and…. You know, I can’t remember that it lightninged and thundered, but it’s bound to have. All I remember is how dark it kept gettin’, and the wind, you know? And, and I, even I, then was scared. I wanted to go to the cellar. But there wasn’t a one of us would go until Grandma would go. And she wasn’t about to go. But she finally, she finally did. I think she finally decided that something was about to give.

PRESLEY: She had probably been through so many storms, that she was just gonna stand out there and ride it out. But there’s something about this one that told her that….

HARTMAN: She’d better….

PRESLEY: She’d better take shelter.

HARTMAN: She’d better go. Yes.

PRESLEY: Well, is there anything else that you’d like to add?

HARTMAN: Well, not really. Just that I hope we don’t ever have another one.

PRESLEY: Aw, I hope not, but it’s inevitable. Someday we will.

HARTMAN: Well probably. But with all the technology that you guys have, maybe it won’t, you know? Maybe there’ll be something that you’ll have control. You know?

The rest of the conversation is at the Paducah station’s 1925 memorial page, here.

In a case of art predicting life, a novel about the Tri-State disaster, Kate Southwood’s Falling to Earth, appeared last month to positive reviews.

Political news around tornadoes is less encouraging. In February, the U.S. Department of Commerce, which overseas the weather service, told the Senate Appropriations committee that mandated sequester budget cuts could delay the launch of a new weather satellite, the GOES-R, by two to three years. Once aloft, the spacecraft is designed to provide data for the nation’s severe weather warning system, among other functions.

Marc Herman

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.


October 15 • 12:00 PM

How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience

Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?


October 15 • 10:00 AM

What Big Data Can Tell Us About the Things We Eat

Pizza might be the only thing that can bring men and women together.


October 15 • 9:04 AM

‘Looking’ at Art in the Smartphone Age

Technology is a great way to activate gallery space, but it shouldn’t take it over.


Follow us


How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

A City’s Fingerprints Lie in Its Streets and Alleyways

Researchers propose another way to analyze the character and evolution of cities.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.