Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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:


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, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.

October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?

October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.

October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.

October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.

October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.

October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.

October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.

October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.

October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.

October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

Follow us

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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