Guest post by Barbara Mayes Boustead
Laura and Almanzo, accidental storm chasers!
I accidentally saw a tornado when I was 9 years old. Our family was driving “up north” from the metro Detroit area into northern Michigan. Somewhere just past Kensington, we saw a funnel cloud cross the interstate and touch down on the other side of the road. It was probably a couple of miles in front of us, and I distinctly remember continuing to drive toward it while other cars were stopped. I remember seeing pieces of trees that looked a little like broccoli being tossed in the air. And then it rained, and my short and sweet tornado encounter was done, not to be repeated until I started chasing storms (on purpose!) in 1999.
I must have read this chapter ten times for every time I read These Happy Golden Years when I was a kid. Tornadoes and Laura, together in one place! Be still, my heart!
Stormy days on the Plains often begin on the hot and humid side. By around midday, puffy cumulus clouds build in the sky – you know, the ones that look like piles of marshmallows and often form interesting shapes for those of us who lie down and watch them roll by. As the afternoon passes, a couple of those cumulus clouds start to get taller than the rest, taller than they are wide. In technical terms, those are “towering cumulus” clouds (yep, seriously!). We meteorologists and storm chasers look for those towering clouds as a sign that thunderstorm development is imminent. Sure enough, one of those towers starts to dominate the rest, growing tens of thousands of feet tall, with a back edge that looks like cauliflower. The top flattens out, with the “icing” at the top (the anvil cloud) spreading downstream ahead of the thunderstorm.
In the heart of the storm, air is rising quite rapidly, and it usually is rotating at least slowly. The most well-formed thunderstorms rotate more rapidly, and along that back edge, in a rain-free area, the base of the storm lowers. This feature, called the “wall cloud”, is where most tornadoes are born. A bystander watching the wall cloud literally will be able to see air rising and clouds swirling counter-clockwise. Sometimes, a funnel cloud forms on the base of the wall cloud, pointing down toward the ground and spinning more rapidly than its wall cloud. In some cases, that rotation reaches all the way from the base of the thunderstorm to the ground, and a tornado is born. Scientists still don’t fully understand what makes some rotating thunderstorms produce tornadoes and not others, but some ingredients are a must: Heat and humidity, which combine to create “instability”. Winds that change direction and speed with height, known as “wind shear”. Something in the atmosphere that triggers thunderstorm development, such as a front (cold, warm, stationary), a sea breeze, or even the air flowing out of another thunderstorm.
Laura takes note of the heat and humidity very quickly on that summer day, August 28, 1884 – a Thursday, not a Sunday as she described in her book. The wind blows in “hot puffs” – a gusty and warm wind, rather than a cooling and steady breeze. On most stormy days in the Plains, the wind ahead of the storms will blow out of the south, southeast, or southwest. Laura and Almanzo put up not only the buggy top, but a clever rain curtain that she describes in detail, as the clouds build. Lightning shoots through and around the thunderstorm, and the kids have a sense that they’re in trouble. (I’ll save my lightning safety soapbox for another day!)
Then, the trouble really starts, as a funnel forms and reaches the ground as a tornado. Laura describes three funnels that take turns tearing at the ground. As someone who has witnessed dozens of tornadoes, I am afraid to say that Laura has seen something that I never have! It seems, based on her description and pictures from others, that she indeed witnessed three separate funnels that intermittently reached the ground, and not just one multiple-vortex tornado, the kind that has one large funnel but several fingers that spin around and reach for the ground at its bottom. Almanzo estimates that the tornado is about 10 miles away, approaching them from the northwest as they race northeast ahead of it. (He was probably pretty accurate there, actually!) They are gambling that they will clear out of its path before it reaches them.
Let’s take a moment and discuss this move. Given their situation, was that the best choice? The answer is that given their options, it wasn’t bad. The safest way to escape the path of a tornado is to figure out what direction it’s moving and then take a hard right and move away. So, for example, if a tornado is moving from west to east, then turn south and go until you’re not it its path. As long as you can keep the tornado in sight and then stay clear of it, and as long as your road doesn’t run out, this is actually relatively safe. Laura and Almanzo took a left instead of a right. This is more dangerous, because it puts them in the path of the hail that comes with a tornadic thunderstorm, but it still gets them out of the path of the tornado.
It works for Laura and Almanzo. The tornado passes to their west, and they feel a cool breeze from the rain- and hail-cooled winds. They return to Ma and Pa, and Pa and Almanzo set out to check on the neighbors.
From this point forward in the chapter, Laura may be telling stories that she heard, rather than things that she and Almanzo witnessed. Still, the stories that Laura told were spot-on accurate, historically speaking. Records indicate that indeed, two boys on mules were struck by the tornado, and one of those boys was killed. The boys lived on a homestead that was destroyed by the tornado just northeast of Forestburg, SD. (On the map below, Forestburg would be due west of Howard by 28 miles, right along the James River, near the beginning of the tornado track that crosses Sanborn and Hanson counties.) Based on historical analysis of the damage to the boys’ farm, researchers assigned a rating of F4 to that particular tornado. The story of the door sounds a little exaggerated, but it certainly is possible that the tornado lofted the door well into the atmosphere and that it didn’t fall back down until after the storm had passed. Certainly tornadoes have been well known to move papers dozens or even hundreds of miles downstream and to loft relatively light debris high into the atmosphere. The actual tornado path from this tornado was, at its closest, some 35-40 miles from DeSmet as the crow flies, which is a bit too long for an afternoon trip on a horse. Perhaps Pa and Almanzo went to help on another day, or perhaps they helped with the Howard tornado aftermath (still about 22 miles from DeSmet at its closest point), or perhaps they didn’t go at all.
Overall, on August 28, 1884, at least 5 significant tornadoes were documented in eastern South Dakota. The tornado closest to Howard is the one in the picture and sketch above, and it is most likely the one spotted by Laura and Almanzo! It was rated F2 based on the damage to a farmstead and barn, and it killed 30 cattle. The fifth tornado, not on the map, occurred very near Sioux Falls. Seven people are known to have killed by tornadoes that day.
Having a “feeling” about when stormy weather is developing is great, and often farmers and Plains dwellers have a pretty good idea about when the weather will turn turbulent. For those who spend less time outside, or who are traveling through the Plains this summer (such as, say, in mid-July!), I strongly encourage you to travel with a NOAA weather radio. Stay aware of forecasts, and please, I beg you, heed the tornado warnings when they are issued in your area. Don’t wait until you can see the tornado. Yes, many times, there isn’t a tornado at all, or the tornado misses you by miles. But please don’t wait for that time when it gets too close for comfort. It’s a small inconvenience to take shelter for a few minutes each year compared to the danger of leaving yourself and your loved ones vulnerable. We have seen too many tragedies in these last couple of years, too many people who waited until the storm was too close or who didn’t heed the warnings because they thought it was “just another one”. And definitely don’t wait until you can hear sirens. Those are meant for outdoor warning only and are not intended (or able) to alert you in your home or wake you up.
I now return you to the safe Laura world, where feathers are sewn onto bonnets correctly!