From the Desk of Jim Minick: The Tornado and the Flood

Jim Minick is the author or editor of seven books, including the award-winning Fire Is Your Water and The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Poets and Writers, Oxford American, Orion, and Shenandoah. His latest book Without Warning: The Tornado of Udall, Kansas was published this month.

On May 25, 1955, an F5 tornado struck Udall, Kansas at 10:35 PM. There was no warning. In roughly three minutes, it destroyed most of the buildings, toppled the water tower, and killed 82 people. The Udall tornado was—and still is—the worst in the history of Kansas, and one of the worst in U.S. history.

In the early morning of July 28, 2022, a massive storm stalled over eastern Kentucky, where it dumped over eight inches of rain in only a few hours. There were warnings, but many people, including me, just wanted to sleep, couldn’t fathom the danger, didn’t want to remember how centuries of mining had compromised these mountains, and so we stayed in bed. I was a guest at a writers’ workshop. I wanted some sleep for the big day ahead. Outside, water swelled to break dams, crush bridges, roll houses, and kill 44 people. The eastern Kentucky flood was called a 1000-year event, one of the worst in the history of the state.

Without Warning: The Tornado of Udall, Kansas is a book I’ve been working on for over a decade. I’ve shaped a narrative of this event based largely on stories from survivors who I’ve come to call friends.

Through it all, I’ve had to wrestle with this conflict: this is not really my story—I didn’t survive the tornado, I’ve never lived in Kansas, and I wasn’t alive in 1955—and yet, to write this book, I’ve had to imagine my way back into that horrible night and the lives of these survivors and all they suffered. I’ve had to make the Udall tornado story my own.

Living through the Kentucky flood proved to me how impossible that really is, how impossible, really, the act of writing and reading are; we can never fully relive an event, never fully recreate a time and place and the rawness of emotion, even if we lived through it. And yet, these tasks of re-imagining the past and the future are so essential and impossibly necessary. Our acts of creativity, how we live on this earth, define us, create the narratives we live by, and as the climate crisis has revealed, if we live by bad stories, we are bound to die by them as well, unless we can imagine better stories. Every one of us has an essential role in shaping narratives that shape the people and places we call home.

A model for shaping these narratives is Toots Rowe. In 1955, Earl Rowe, who everyone called Toots, was the just-elected mayor of Udall. On the night of May 25, he was about to head to the oilrig where he worked the nightshift. Before he could leave, the storm struck. Toots and his family didn’t have time to escape to their storm shelter, so they crawled under their dining room table, Toots, his wife Lola, and their three children. The tornado blew out the windows and then one wall of the house collapsed onto the family. A brick hit Toots on the head and briefly knocked him unconscious, but somehow, he woke to crawl out from under the wall, and somehow, he lifted that wall enough for his wife and children to crawl out.

After Toots got his one severely injured child to a hospital, and the rest of his family found shelter nearby, Toots returned to help with the search and rescue. For the rest of that night and all the next day, he and others dug through the rain and rubble to carry neighbors, friends, and kin—some dead, some alive—to waiting ambulances.

One newspaperman asked Toots how he felt. He replied, “I still can’t believe that it’s all happened—that so many of my friends and neighbors are dead or injured, that we don’t have a town to live in, that a number of them probably still lie buried beneath the rubble.” He paused. “My house just floated away. I don’t know where it is.” He looked around. “There’s nothing left.” He repeated, “There’s nothing left.”

The next day, while searching through the rubble, Toots met his friend Wayne Keely. Keely was the City Marshal—he knew and loved this town. The two men shook hands and shared how they had survived and who they knew was gone or injured.

Then Toots asked, “Well, what are you going to do?”

Keely answered, “I’m gonna build somewhere else.”

“The hell you are,” Toots said. “You’re gonna build right back here.”

Keely eventually agreed.

Many, like Keely, heard Toots and stayed on because of him. They picked up his words—I’m going to rebuild—and made a refrain of hope, resilience, and determination.

Somehow Toots Rowe knew it was his job to create his town’s story of survival. He had to tell the world about the horrible loss, to put words to the pain. And he had to tell Wayne Keely: To hell you’re leaving. I’m rebuilding, and you’re still going to be my neighbor.

What stories are people who experienced the Kentucky flood creating about surviving, about rebuilding? And what stories are we all creating now to carry us forward through the great upheaval called the climate crisis? One version, the easy one, is to say we’re all doomed and to give up. In contrast, any story of hope requires much more work than that. And this work, based in compassion and justice and focused on what’s good in the moment, might save us. When the doomsayers’ predictions overwhelm, we can still, like Toots, pick up a hammer and start to rebuild. Intentions, actions, and persistence matter.

Our difficulties are predicted to only get harder over the coming decades. As one study indicated, “The world has witnessed a tenfold increase in the number of natural disasters.” In 1960 only 39 natural disasters occurred; in 2019 that number jumped to 396.

Through this all, the Udall story becomes more and more relevant. Will we give of ourselves to the labor of rescuing and rebuilding? Like most of the town of Udall today, will we be more prepared for the next storm with a shelter close by that can withstand a tornado or hurricane, a fire or flood? And with the people in Kentucky, will we be able to rebuild out of the next floodplain? There will be orphans, along with widows and widowers; will we take them in? We need strong communities, and we will need strong, generous communities to help others when they struggle. The outpouring to both Kansas and Kentucky was impressive, but will that generosity be sustained over the many years of rebuilding in Kentucky and elsewhere? Like in Udall, to lift our spirits and help us remember, we’ll need school marching bands and artists of all sorts to help us create and celebrate these new stories. And we will need each other.

Like those Udall survivors, we too are searching through the rubble and wondering how we are going to get through this climate crisis. Toots is yelling at us, To hell you’re leaving, and he’s right, because we have no other planet to call home. Toots is challenging us to tell better stories, to say, we’ll get through this if we stick together. Any part of the rest of this story, whether it takes place in Kansas, Kentucky, or Cambodia, any path through the climate crisis will not be easy because the upheaval will be—and already is—great. Yet we have to create narratives that carry us through to thriving, justice-filled, vibrant communities, and these must be stories of love strong enough to say, To hell you’re leaving. I’m rebuilding, and you are still going to be my neighbor.

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