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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Tale of Nature's Ability to Devastate and Humans' Ability to Recover and Rebuild

America's Deadliest Twister: The Tri-State Tornado of 1925America's Deadliest Twister: The Tri-State Tornado of 1925 by Geoff Partlow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having traveled through many parts of the US that have been devastated by tornadoes I was very interested in learning about the Tri-State Tornado of 1925:America's Deadliest Twister, a Goodreads First reads giveaway. I was overwhelmed by the size of the storm, sometimes a mile across; its speed of travel, up to a mile a minute; the distance it covered; 219 miles, the number of deaths,695 people, many children; the incredible wind speed, at times exceeding 300 miles per hour!!; and the unbelievable devastation of towns, villages and cities. The details, taken from newspaper accounts, interviews with people in their 90's who had been elementary school children in 1925, and the reports and statements of people in authority at the time, were so intense and real that it left me feeling that no one who experienced this event could ever recover from its horror. If you have ever seen the opening black and white sequences of The Wizard of Oz showing the cyclone that transported Dorothy and Toto to the land of Oz, you might have an inkling of just a millisecond of this disaster.

Overwhelming in its detailed descriptions of death, and the randomness of it; the recovery of bodies, their preparation for burial, the sheer number of funerals; it is also incredibly uplifting in the descriptions of heroism, and neighborly care shown to the survivors. The author follows the path of the storm from its opening attack in Annapolis, Missouri to its final throes near Petersburg, Indiana. It began at 1 pm March 18,1925 and had done all its damage by 4:30 pm ! Three and one half hours to turn wooden homes into kindling, collapse brick buildings into chaotic piles of brick and, in other areas, to totally scour the landscape of any evidence of inhabitance whatever.

In the days, when Calvin Coolidge and most Americans did not feel the Federal government should be in the business of the recovery of towns and large swaths of the nation through the action of Nature, corporations, folks from neighboring towns, The Red Cross, The Salvation Army, Churches and Hospitals, survivors all pulled together and waiving any remuneration rolled up their sleeves and mobilized to get things back together. A woolen mill in New Hampshire sent tons of blankets to he area; Jewel Tea company sent thousands of pounds of coffee to the Red Cross for distribution; the railroads put train cars at the disposal of those needing to be transported to hospitals in larger cities; casket manufacturers sent hundreds of caskets to the towns. None of these things came with invoices then or later.

Yet, there were those afoot who would attempt to benefit from the conditions. Militia, State Police, Army forces were sent to protect women and young girls who might become prey to ill-minded males; to protect the bodies of mothers and wives that were looted for their gold wedding bands and other jewelry. Insurance companies attempted to avoid paying claims stating that wind had caused damage in areas where fire and flood insurance should have covered the buildings that burnt to the ground, sometimes with people trapped within them, or that were washed away by the already swollen rivers that flooded with the rains brought by the storm. The head of the Recovery Commission sent personal letters asking for donations to help rebuild schools to some of the richest Americans: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Russell Sage, Julius Rosenwald-a Sears, Roebuck partner- John D. Rockefeller. None of them acknowledged receipt of the plea but for Rockefeller who sent $5000!

The aftermath of the storm described at the end of the book makes it all the sadder. The Depression set in soon after and then, as the times moved on with paved roads, the rise of environmental concerns about the use of coal, the development of the automobile, the primary sources of employment--the coal mines, the railroad and the intercity trollies--all closed down. As a result, much of the area has never truly returned to the economic status it once had. One town never rebuilt, another is a ghost town and in other places the physical scars remain, if fading.

An emotionally moving book, well written, hard to put down.

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