May 4th, 1977, 40 years ago today as I write this, was a defining moment for my life. On that day I was a third grade student at the Pleasant Hill, Missouri, primary school. On that day, our school and the neighboring high school took a direct hit from a large, long-lived tornado. At least 2 people were confirmed killed in town, although as many as 5 have been reported, and it is estimated $3 million in damage occurred. Although I think I was already fascinated with weather and thunderstorms, I have to believe this event probably helped cement my future destiny in meteorology. I stumbled into a blog from a couple of years ago by another student at the same school recalling the event that brought back a lot of familiar memories, so I thought I would document my own memories.
The day started rainy, cloudy, and muggy and I remember sneaking my new matchbox car I had gotten the day before into my pocket as I left for school, a little yellow crane truck. The morning had been uneventful, and I remember we were listening to the teacher read us a story and I was playing with the truck under the edge of my desk when they made the announcement on the intercom, “Teachers, please bring your students quickly and quietly to the storm shelter.” I was already a young weather weenie, and I knew this wouldn’t be a drill, and I remember tossing the car into my under-chair storage area as my heart jumped.
It was very fortunate that the primary school had just been built 3 years prior and had a very nice basement specifically designed as a storm shelter. We all got staged in rows, sitting Indian style for what seemed like a long time as it became hot and stuffy. A teacher had brought down a guitar, and I remember singing “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine”. At one point, a girl sitting next to me started sobbing, worrying about her family and what was going to happen, and I awkwardly grabbed her hand and said we would all be OK. Looking back, it is amazing we had this much lead time in 1977, but this was a storm that had a 50 mile track, sometimes approaching a 1/2 mile wide path, and there were diligent storm spotters following it and radioing ahead.
Finally, the principal came running down the stairs and told us to put our heads down. I remember two distinct roars, almost a grinding noise, separated by a few seconds, and the rush of cool air providing a lot of relief from the stuffiness. I don’t recall how much time passed before they took us upstairs, but I remember they made us walk under the places where the roof was missing for fear of other parts falling and that it was pouring rain. As they loaded us on a bus to take us to a church downtown, I saw cars in the parking lot stacked on each other and the nice house next door to the school having been reduced to a pile of rubble. One thing that struck me at the time was my teacher’s blue pickup truck that had a white camper shell. The camper shell had been ripped off, but with the edge of it still attached to the bed, almost like torn paper.
At the church, it felt like my mom was never going to find me. She didn’t drive, so a neighbor brought her (we lived on Locust just a block or two from 7 Highway, so she had seen the tornado from our basement window). She was equally panicked because my name wasn’t on any list. I remember both of us just breaking down and crying when we finally found each other. Meanwhile, my Dad was trying to get back into town from KC where he worked, but the National Guard had already established checkpoints slowing down traffic.
The funny thing is that our house was for sale because we were planning on moving back to KC (we lived there almost exactly one year …. I finished 2nd grade and all of 3rd grade in PH). The local realtor (Jerry Land ?) who was selling our house actually bought it that week to live in while his house that was damaged could be repaired, so we moved within a couple weeks afterward. We got back up to KC where we had lived before, and I was done with 3rd grade because of the early finish due to the tornado while all my neighbors and friends were still in school.
I ended up becoming a meteorologist, fascinated with weather, and now live in the heart of tornado alley in Norman, OK. Definitely a defining moment of my life!