When our careers took my husband and me away from Kansas, we quickly learned what many people's impression of our home state was. When they learned we had been born and raised in Kansas, they were likely to ask, "Have you ever seen a tornado?" Today, sport's fans might be more inclined to comment on Kansas University basketball or Kansas State University football, but the Wizard of Oz has definitely left the impression with many people that Kansas is the land of tornadoes.
In fact, I have never seen a tornado, and I hope I never do. Kansas is not even in the top three states with the most reported tornadoes, those being Oklahoma, Texas and Florida. Every state has a reported tornado on record, although for a few states, tornadoes are extremely rare. The Great Plains is frequently called 'Tornado Alley,' and the states in the Mid-West with the greatest number of tornadoes are Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota. During 2011 severe tornadoes struck states where that seemed an unexpected weather phenomena.
Isaac came to Kansas to stake his claim in 1878, yet it was a decade before he saw his first tornado. On May 9, 1888, he wrote in his journal,"Clouds gathering over S. of us and a 'Twister' down S.E., the first I seen, a tapering white sock hanging down, slanting from clouds and in a mere streak connecting down to ground raising the dust at time[s] then raising & vanishing & moving on down again & renewing the dark dust funnel." The tornado disappeared before coming near Isaac's homestead and timber claim, but the power and potential for destruction left a lingering impression with Isaac, for he later wrote,"One looks for 'Twisters' now at any cloud raising."
If Isaac had been living on his homestead in May of 2007, he would surely have seen the nest of tornadoes that hung from the clouds over three nights of destruction in his community. Homes were destroyed, lives were lost, and the small city of Greensburg about twenty-five miles to the southwest was nearly obliterated. Although Greensburg dominated the news reports, the rural area around my childhood home also suffered two deaths and severe property damage.
Tornadoes are certainly frightening, but they are also quirky in their destruction. Recently I took this photograph of two tree rows on opposite sides of a road. The edge of the 2007 tornado can be seen from the destruction of the tree belt on the east side of the road, while the tree belt on the west side was practically untouched. Devastation or survival may be the result of a distance of only a few feet. Many groves and rows of trees in our community are little more than mutilated remants of once stately shelter belts.
About a mile to the south of the tree rows, the home of our friends was destroyed, along with the farm equipment and the metal grain bins of their farming operation. Metal from those grain bins, and from the bins and metal buildings of other farms, was carried by the tornadoes for miles, driven into tree trunks and buried in fields to ruin tractor tires, unless sharp-eyed farmers spot the protruding metal. Perhaps the piece of heavy metal wrapped around the guywire of this pole to create a piece of nature's art from tragedy came from our friends' farm several miles to the south. The force of the whirling tornado bent the metal around the guywire like a sheet blowing on a clothes line.
The pasture posts topped with old boots extend in both directions for a quarter of a mile or so--just a bit of rural whimsy for passersby to enjoy.
May of 2008 also brought serious injuries and loss of property from tornadoes in our community. Although winter is the likely time for tornadoes in the South, it is spring when Kansans make sure the NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's weather alert) is plugged into an outlet and the storm shelter has been sprayed to get rid of spiders and is stocked with candles, matches, flashlights, blankets, and maybe a gallon of water and some packaged peanut butter crackers--just in case. It was May when Isaac saw his first tornado, and luckily for him, he never saw another.