Saturday, April 4, 2009

Palm Sunday Tornado, 1965 Alpine Township

With the telephone lines down, emergency services in Elkhart County, Indiana, could not warn Michigan residents that the tornadoes were headed their way. In Michigan, tornadoes hit as far north as Allendale, in Ottawa County, Michigan, just west of Grand Rapids. Out of the southernmost counties of Michigan, all but three (Berrien, Cass, and St. Joseph counties) were hit. Two F4 tornadoes struck Hillsdale County and destroyed about 200 cottages along Baw Beese Lake. It was said many people were saved as they were in church instead of out by the lake. Later, the Manitou Beach-Devils Lake area in Lenawee County was hit by two tornadoes (one an F4) in a span of a little more than 30 minutes, causing numerous fatalities (including a family of six). One of the buildings leveled was the local dance pavilion on Devils Lake, which had just recently been rebuilt after having been destroyed by a fire on Labor Day of 1963. One of the twisters went on to damage parts of Onsted; in the nearby village of Tipton, which suffered a direct hit, 94% of the town's buildings were damaged or destroyed. Here is just one of many stories about that day, this one as remembered by then seventeen year old Marilyn Homrich.

Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter, the day my family attended church to receive palms and prepare for Holy Week. It was a beautiful spring morning and after church me and my good friends Norma and Kathy were going to hang out. I asked my older sister Irene if we could borrow her white Ford Comet to go cruising, which in those days was one of the most popular things for seventeen year old kids to do. Around 3:00 PM, with dear Irene’s consent, I picked up Norma and Kathy, who both lived a few houses away on each side of me on Alpine Church Road. By this time the sky had turned from blue to gray, the humidity was rising, and the temperature spiked to over 70 degrees F. This had us donning pedal pushers and short-sleeved blouses, as if summer had already arrived.

What I had failed to tell my sister Irene is that Kathy and I (who were very experienced drivers at age 17) wanted to help 16 year old Norma practice for her upcoming driver’s exam. After three hours of backing up and parking maneuvers, we decided to call it quits for the day. Our job was accomplished and there was no damage to the Comet. We could see the sky changing, warning us that a storm was approaching as we headed for Kathy’s house. As we arrived there, the storm seemed over us and we decided to wait it out in the house.

We entered to find Kathy’s family watching TV in the family room. A weather forecaster interrupted the scheduled program announcing severe weather in the region, but fortunately, Kent County was not included in the warning so we felt safe and relieved. Kathy, who had gone into the kitchen, called me over to take a look at my sister’s Comet parked in the driveway, and clearly visible from the kitchen window. I saw my sister’s two-ton car bouncing up and down and shimmying from side to side.

Despite the force of the wind, and a sky that had now turned a putrid pea-green, we returned to the living room, not overly concerned. After all, the weatherman had said that Kent County was not included in the severe weather area. It wasn’t until much later that we learned that the local radar system was being upgraded and was not in commission, and that a tornado, which had originated from a horribly violent storm in Northern Indiana was heading straight toward us. There would be no alert, no warning.

The living room TV suddenly lost its picture and the screen showed only static. At the same time Kathy’s mom had gone into her bedroom to retrieve a statue of St. Francis. To this day, some of us believe God called her into that room. She picked up the statue and looking through the South window, she saw an advancing funnel dismantling Holy Trinity, our church and school. There were only four houses between us and the swiftly advancing tornado. “Get in the basement!” shrieked Kathy’s mom, clinging to her statue. The words barely left her mouth and everybody was on their feet and rushed downstairs. The staircase windows exploded behind us as we took shelter. I remembered instructions to always go to the southwest corner wall, but being the last one down, there was no more room. There were seven of us, Kathy and her mom and dad, her brother, her sister, Norma and I. I settled for the middle of the room and sought shelter underneath the pool table. As I looked through one of the small basement windows, I could see the garage being scooped away. For only minutes, which seemed like hours, nobody moved or talked. Somewhere in the back of my mind came the thought that tornadoes often come in twos. And so we waited. I heard Kathy’s mom ask in a shaken and weak voice what had happened to her home. Crawling from underneath the pool table, I looked up and saw dark clouds through a gaping hole where there once had been a floor, and where only minutes earlier we had been sitting. In shock myself, I simply responded to her question with: “Your house is gone.” “How do you know?” She asked. “There is a hole above my head” I replied, and I am being rained on.” This comment seemed to bring us all back to life. We gathered ourselves up and checked each other out. One of us got something to stand on so we could look out the window that faced the neighbors west of us. The house was gone, subfloor and all. Nothing was left. Nothing. Our hearts sank. We feared the worst. Then we saw the neighbors emerge from their tombs. Out of their basements. God had been with all of us. But the day wasn’t over yet. My family lived two houses to the east. What had become of them?

To be continued.

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