March 2 TornadoesMarch 2nd, 2013 at 6:09 am by Bill Steffen under Bill's Blog, Weather
Today is the one year anniversary of the worst tornado outbreak anywhere in the world in 2012. On Mar. 2, 2012, a total of 132 tornadoes were reported and 70 of these were confirmed. There were 2 EF4 tornadoes, 9 EF3s and 14 EF2s. Fifteen states reported severe weather, with 252 reports of wind damage and 303 reports of severe-criteria hail. I drove down to see my mother and sister in Tennessee in April, and on that trip, I spent the better part of two days surveying the tornado path areas and talking to relief workers and emergency responders. A couple things they emphasized…first get a helicopter in the air as soon as possible (with significant light) and video the damage path. You can get a good idea of what’s been damaged and where to send first relief teams. Second, put up a curfew. This is not just to prevent looting. It’s very important to keep gawkers out of the area. They get in the way (ambulances were actually delayed a few minutes because they were stuck in the gawker’s traffic). Also, remember that fences are down and buildings are damaged. You’ll have everything from house cats to larger cows and horses running around. You’ll come around a bend in the road and find a cow there. It’s easy to run into a stray animal at night. There is a lot of sharp glass and wood that can cause injury, so it’s not good for relief workers to be out when they can’t see. The relief workers started about 25-30 minutes before sunrise and stopped abruptly about 25 minutes after sunset. In Henryville, Indiana – the relief effort has been called “March 2 Recovery”. This is a 2-year plan. I stopped at a church, which had donated the use of their gym for one of 3 relief headquarters (donated for two years). I talked to the director of the recovery effort – a woman who had attended Aquinas College in G.R. The gym had bottled water piled high in one corner, non-perishable food/snacks in another. The kitchen operated every day, cooking 3 hot meals each day. On the wall were clipboards – dozens of them – one said “plumber wanted” – another “plumbers available”. Plumbers and every kind of skilled or non-skilled volunteer help were giving up a Saturday a month or taking a vacation day or two, some driving over a hundred miles one way, to come and help. The director had high praise for businesses that had donated foot and water and for faith-based groups. She said the Mormons, the Amish, the Presbyterians all have trained relief teams – retirees on their own dime to church supported individuals who came the next day to help. She said they much preferred money to clothes. She said well-meaning people cleaned out their closets and dropped off clothes, but the relief workers didn’t have time to wash them or check for bugs, etc. They went to the dollar store or WalMart with the money and bought the clothes. The schools were a high early priority. For the time being, kids were being bussed 10 miles north to attend school, and they wanted the schools rebuilt by the fall.
While driving along, I stopped at a large tent set off the rural road east of Henryville. I asked who was in charge and they pointed me to a man serving lunch to some of the volunteers. He said he could talk to me when he was done. When he finished he came over to the table where I was sitting. He pulled out a cigarette and said his name was Billy Graham…yup, that was his real name…except his father was Billy Graham and so he was a Jr. He’s a cook down in Louisville and drives back and forth every day. He said he noticed that they had relief efforts going strong back in Henryville, and over toward the Ohio River where the tornado had crossed into Kentucky, but nothing much in the middle. So, he got some business to donate a big tent and he started getting donations to start cooking meals there. He was working 6-7 days a week, seeing to breakfast at sunrise…driving to Louisville to do his job and then back to help at the tent with dinner. He told me to walk across the street to the church. The church was gone, except for the basement. Someone had taken two branches and a small piece of rope and made a cross, which they stuck in the ground. Billy said that there were about 20 kids in that church, many of them special needs kids. They had barely enough time to get the kids in the basement. The church collapsed into the basement. The kids were in about the only 16-square feet of the basement where they could have been safe. Billy said there were other stories like that he could tell. It got him to going to church again. He tapped the end of his cigarette on the table. He said that was the church that Col. Harlan Sanders (KFC founder) had attended. His house was 3 doors down – his boyhood home – and it was destroyed by the twister. They weren’t going to rebuild it. He asked if I’d seen the cemetery and I said yes. He said about 10 of Harlan’s relatives are buried there and that KFC came up and fixed the place up and also donated quite a bit of money and food to the relief effort. Next door to the tent a woman was killed by the tornado. He said the twister sure brought people together, he’d met a lot of people and he was really impressed with all the donated food//time. He said his tent was all private and church money – he hadn’t got a dime from the government and didn’t need it.
We saw where the tornado crossed the Ohio River. On the Kentucky side, the twister knocked down dozens of trees in a wooded area, but had for the most part missed the houses along the river. We drove into Kentucky and stopped at West Liberty, where the tornado also went thru the center of town. The gray clouds came down almost to the top of the hills and a damp wind seemed to blow right through my windbreaker. One man told me, “we’ve been upgraded from terrible to just plain horrible”. Six weeks after the tornado and it still looked like a war zone. You could see devastation along a long path a good 1/2 mile wide. The bank was pretty much destroyed. They had put a chain fence around what was left. The bank was operating out of a small trailer in the parking lot. The Rite Aid was quickly rebuilt and was the place to go to get whatever could be got. It was interesting what was fixed. The second floor of the Masonic Lodge had been blown away and the first floor heavily damaged. In days a team of about 20 Masonic workers came and rebuilt the lodge. Next door the city hall was still a wreck with all the windows blown out. A row of shops and businesses on the main street was pretty much untouched…someone had swept the debris out of the street and off the sidewalk, but that was about it. The man said many of the shops were owned by elderly people and they were only marginally profitable and probably wouldn’t get rebuilt. Down the road, two men had been watching TV. A neighbor knocked on their door, told them of the tornado warning and asked them to come to her house because she had a basement. The men declined and were among the casualties. In the distance you could hear chain saws and see the smoke from burning debris. So much of the damage appeared to be untouched…from the debris-peppered wood houses, now empty, to flagpoles bent in a curve toward the ground. Toward the end of the day, I stopped at the local National Weather Service and we talked about March 2nd. The tornado outbreak was well-forecast from both SPC and locally, with significant lead time on most of the strong tornadoes.
The storms killed 40 people that day, 40 of the 68 who perished in tornadoes in the U.S. in 2012. Five, even 10 years from now, you’ll be able to tell that a twister roared through. It takes a long time for the forest to regrow. The wind may have howled for less than a minute…yet that minute changed so many lives and towns like Henryville, Indiana and West Liberty, Kentucky will never be the same. There’s a nice radar loop of the storms, pictures and a nice summary here.