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Tornadoes!

June 23, 2011

Hail last week and strong storms daily this week have left central Iowa very soggy.  The constant cloud cover darkens the house out here at the 1900 farm and reminds us that we live in tornado alley, where the cool Canadian and Rocky Mountain air meets the warm breezes from the Gulf of Mexico.  This year, especially, has reminded us the path of destruction a tornado leaves behind.  Our thoughts are with those in places like Joplin and St. Louis as they recover from deadly storms.  Tornadoes are brutal even when we have advanced warning systems like those from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s National Weather Service.  Imagine those storms without a TV spot or sirens to let you know to cover, imagine them showing up amidst a dark cloudy day like the ones that we have frequently experienced.  That may be close to what the population of Pomeroy, IA experienced in 1893 and people of Sioux County, IA faced in 1895.  Just like today, communities faced the wake of the storms head on, with help freely given, in the tradition of the Midwest.

The Story of a Storm: A History of the Great Tornado at Pomeroy, Calhoun County, Iowa July 6,1893 tells the story of the tremendous storm that nearly leveled the city to the ground.  The book is complete with pictures that are reminiscent of those we saw last month from Joplin.  Between 5 and 6 pm on Thursday July 6, 1893, a storm made it’s way from Cherokee Country through Storm Lake to Calhoun County, reported following the path of the Illinois Central Railroad.  An account from the United States weather Bureau read as following. “…a number of buildings evidently exploded outward from the force of the expanding air within, the roofs being carried away and the sides and ends of the structures were left lying as they fell, to the four points of the compass.

News spread rapidly as people traveled by horseback to neighboring towns.  Telegrams were sent, and volunteers were collected.  Temporary housing and hospitals were assembled and doctors from other towns hastened to the scene.  By 4 pm on Friday afternoon the Governor of Iowa, Horace Boies, was in Pomeroy, and appealed to the people of Iowa:

“From the personal examination of the ruin wrought by the storm last evening I find that 42 are already dead and upwards of one hundred seriously injured in this town, which had a population of 1,000 souls.  The great bulk of the resident portion of the town is completely destroyed and hundreds of families are homeless and destitute.  In at least one town west of here eight or ten are said to have been killed and many injured.  The necessity for aid is imperative.”

The people of Iowa answered the call.  Just as we are sending van loads of clothes, and food to Southwest Missouri, the help for Pomeroy came by train.  Help came from all over Iowa, and from other states in the form of $69,761.23 in money, seven (train)carloads of lumber, two carloads of flour, clothing, bedding, groceries, provisions, and many other things.  Train cars of nurses came to help the wounded, and the Pullman Palace Car Company of Chicago provided transportation to the hospital in Sioux City if warranted.  In the end, 71 deaths were reported from the tornado which would be considered an F5 on the modern scale, the same rating given to the tornado in Joplin.  While it took some time, the town of Pomeroy that had lost about 80% of its buildings, rebuilt.  Today, Pomeroy is a town of 662 in the middle of Northwest Iowa farm country.

Most of the information about the tornado in Pomeroy is taken from the above mentioned book and a secondary source, a book entitled Pomeroy Centennial from 1970.  Special thanks to Dan Jones, Director of Education at Living History Farms, for his help in providing this information.  

The people of Northwest Iowa were hit particularly hard by tornadoes those years.  On Friday May 3, 1895, two years after the devastation in Calhoun County, a tornado nearly a mile in width struck Sioux County.  Several school houses and personal homes were destroyed, and several people were killed.  The Monona County Gazette on May 9, 1895, reported that 9 people died and around 28 were badly injured.  The deaths included a brother and sister who were both school teachers.  George Marsden and Miss Anna Marsden were both killed when their schools (Haggie and Coombs schools, respectfully) were destroyed by the storm.

What is interesting about this particular storm is not what happened after.  The help and rebuilding occured, but the Hull Index reported on May 10th, 1895, several human interest stories that I wanted to share with you.

“At Godfrey Beckman’s farm there is a poor forlorn, and almost featherless rooster, looking a little weather-beaten but still able to crow and fight.”

“Saturday’s visitors could see at one place a dove sitting on its nest, in the midst of a crushed barn, as quietly as though nothing had happened.”

“In the midst of one field could be seen a shingle sticking in the ground, with a man’s hat on it, ready it seemed, for another trip.”

” At another place a sack of seed-corn was an object for the storm’s caprice.  The sack was ripped off and the corn left standing in a heap.”

As you can see, while there was great concern and help from neighbors, there were also some off the wall stories to lighten the mood.  Natural disasters have changed little in 110 years.  The forewarning we are given means countless lives saved.  Still, those of us that live in tornado alley are very aware that when the clouds darken and the sirens shrill, we should get to the basement or storm shelter and keep the flash lights or candles on hand because we never quite know what is coming for us. No matter how prepared we are, weather strikes and we must do like the people of Pomeroy did over 100 years ago, like the people of Joplin are doing now.  We must get back up and rebuild.

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