A History Lesson

Warning: If stories about natural disasters bother you, you might want to skip reading this post. There is nothing graphic, but I am aware that some people have issues with these kinds of things.

Hello readers, it’s Marie-Grace, and I have a very interesting story to tell you about something that happened 30 years ago in the area where mom and dad live. It’s a little bit scary, but I also found it very interesting too.

In April we studied tornadoes in science class. In case you don’t know, April is “Tornado Awareness Month” because that marks the beginning of what is usually the most common time of year for tornado’s to happen. Our teacher mentioned that many years ago, the worst tornado to hit Pennsylvania happened near here. I thought that was very interesting, so when I got home I asked mom about it.

“Oh honey, you have no idea how scary that night was for so many people” mom replied. She then told me a little bit of the story.

“It was a beautiful day, sunny, but very, very humid. As the day continued, the skies darkened, but I still didn’t think anything was wrong. I was working in a department store at the time, and all we could see were typical thunderstorms out the store window.” She said that it wasn’t until she got home from work that she realized something very, very bad had happened. When she pulled into her driveway, she found a large piece of someone’s roof in her front yard!

She said that when she got up the next morning, she went exploring around the neighborhood. Luckily no homes in her area were damaged, but there was debris scattered everywhere. They were finding parts of houses, cancelled checks and other paperwork, plastic planters, all sorts of different things. The neighbor kids even found a pair of pants still on a hanger! What made it frightening was that all of this debris had been carried about 40 miles from Ohio. Later it was determined that one of the funnels had “bounced” over the area, scattering all of this mess around the area. Damage had occurred all over Eastern Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, Southwestern New York and Ontario, Canada. At final count, just over 1000 homes and business were destroyed with over 1200 damaged. 90 people in the US and Canada were killed, hundreds injured. A total of 41 tornadoes were responsible for all of this, all in one afternoon/evening.

The next few days were very interesting and scary at the same time. You couldn’t listen to the radio or watch television because all of the stations were broadcasting information on how to get help and where to go for the victims. Phone service wasn’t all that great either because so many telephone poles had been destroyed all over in the storm. (remember, this was before cell phones were invented!) One phone company official said that it was going to be like building an entirely new system from scratch. As different stories came out, everyone who survived was happy to know that they had gotten through something so awful and dangerous. She said that it took a few years, but a lot of the damaged homes and businesses were rebuilt. She then told me that she had an old newspaper from the day after it had happened, it had belonged to her mom, and then asked me if I would like to see it. I said sure!

Tornado 5

Tornado 8

The pictures were awful, it looked like someone had gone through with a giant wrecking ball and crashed it into all of these buildings. Some of the stories were very sad too. It made me think of some of the awful storms that had gone through Oklahoma and some other areas this spring, and I thought of all the people there who had lost their homes. Mother Nature is a powerful force, and we just never know what she is going to do!

Mom asked me if I would like to see the area where the storm went through that isn’t far from here. I said yes, I would very much like to see it. It has a lot of historical significance because it is the only F5 (which is the strongest on the scale) tornado to ever hit the state of Pennsylvania. She also said that there was a memorial there, she would take me to see it.

Tornado 2

The memorial is right in the middle of an industrial park. I thought it was a little bit strange, and mom told me that she did too until she realized why it was there. It is in the center spot of where the greatest amount of damage was done. The reason it says “Sawhill” on it is because it was the site of Sawhill Tube (now named Wheatland Tube) which was severely damaged in the storm. Then she asked me if I noticed anything else weird. I said “no”, so she said after we get home, I’ll show you and explain.

She pulled up an arial map of the industrial park on Google Maps. Then she pointed out to me all of these small, empty streets with nothing around them, scattered amongst the large buildings of the different companies in the park. Then she explained. “This part of Wheatland had both houses AND industrial manufacturers in this area for many, many years. Over the years, the zoning changed from residential to industrial. Because of that change, when the tornado flattened many of the homes in the area, the residents weren’t permitted to rebuild.” I was shocked. I thought about how terrible that might have been for those people. To live there for many years and not to be able to rebuild your home.  Wow.

As terrifying as it was though, she said a lot of good came out of it.  Better awareness of storms and safety, more drills, better alerts and a sense of community as well.  She said that those that were able to did rebuild, some did leave the area, but most stayed.  Another area that was hit was not far from the town of New Brighton, she said that the first time she was there after the tornadoes, she couldn’t believe it.  One section that they drove through to go to dad’s grandma’s had a thick, heavily wooded area, and when they drove through shortly after the storms, it looked like someone had gone through with thousands of chainsaws and cut every single tree down.  She told me that if she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes, she never would have believed it.

Today is the 30th anniversary of these storms, I took a few minutes to think about it and said a prayer for everyone who survived and for the families of those who didn’t. I’m also very thankful that I’ve never had to go through something like this, and I hope I never do.

I hope that this post didn’t scare you, and that you learned a little bit of Pennsylvania history from it.  If you don’t know what to do in the case of a tornado, here’s a link to a website with terrific information.  Stay safe.

If you would like to read more about this, I have more of an account at my other blog, as well as some links to some other websites with additional information. –Flo