Guest Blogs and Featured Spotlights, Memoir and Reflections, Throw-back Thursday

Tornado: Part Two, Aftermath

Last week (in Tornado: Part One) I told the tale of the day the tornado struck and the

Whirlwind

And now here is the aftermath of that storm.

***

Rural areas around Hickson, 13 km north of Woodstock, and a wide swath south and east of the city showed only too clearly the devastating damage left by the tornado.

***

What happened to your father’s car?

We found out where it was and went to the auto body. It didn’t look horrible. The windows were all knocked out, dents all over the car, but it looked damaged enough. We got the insurance and the things we needed out. I am not sure what ended up happening to it.

***

What did you and Dad do the next morning?

We went out to the farm and I was just shocked. By then already there were chainsaws going, people were cutting up the trees.

I don’t think I did anything but walk around that day from the barn to the house to the driving shed, everything was just completely gone.

Back then they still let you go through all your stuff. I wandered through the rooms. Today they would bring in crews and would need to check the structure of the house before they would even let you go in.

There was broken glass all over and shards of glass were driven right into the kitchen counters. The walls upstairs were completely torn off. My old bedroom was completely open to the sky. My wedding gown had been in one of the spare bedroom closets. We found it stuck up in one of the pine trees. shredded and dirty. Somebody else must have taken it down already because I don’t think I did that.

The little kids swing set was still standing unharmed with pine trees ripped out on all sides of it, from when we were kids. We had that swing set.

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(I used to swing on this set with my cousins when we were growing up. My youngest uncle would live on this farm for many years, after my grandparents retired and passed the farm to him.

My grandfather gave a swing set like this to each of his children for their children. Ours stands there still and now my nephews and niece play on it. It is a strong structure, as strong as the man it came from had been.)

***

What did you and Mom do and see that next morning?

We drove out and as we got there we could see how much damage was done. All the trees were down…tuns of people already, chainsaws going. Mom met her family…lots of hugs and crying, surveying the damage, driving shed gone and debris all over the place.

It was only nine or nine thirty and there were already probably one hundred people there, people…people showing up all the time. Family and friends just kept on showing up.

What damage was there to any vehicles?

The freezer had fallen against your uncle’s car. It had been in the garage and the garage had been attached to the house by a little breezeway. That wall had fallen…on his car, which was in pretty bad shape.

What other damage did you notice?

Outside I looked up and could see the bathroom wall was gone, you could see the bathtub and toilet. The house was quite damaged, especially the top, a lot of water damage. The staircase was damaged with bricks all over the place. I thought I walked upstairs. Sometimes…it’s thirty five years ago and it’s pretty traumatic. Some of the finer parts…I might have forgot. Chaos all day…people working, doing this or that. I don’t know what we did all day. I don’t remember me doing anything all day either…people bringing food.

***

When you first saw it, did it still look like the house you grew up in?

There was a nice stained glass window in the living room, it was all shattered to pieces. Most of the downstairs windows were all blown out. The stairs were all full of bricks.

How long had that house been there?

It had previous owners. It was built somewhere around nineteen-hundred. It was already almost eighty years old when this happened, but it had a double brick layer, a beautiful old farm house.

What did you say and what did they say when you finally saw your parents?

They both explained where they were and what it felt like.

The loud roar of everything being torn up above would have been frightening I’m sure.
She didn’t know where grandpa and bruce were. She had no idea. She stayed crouched beside the oil tank in the basement, next to the furnace.

They were out in the barn milking cows at the time.
They went over to the milk house because it was buried in the barn bank. two walls were buried in the bank and the third wall was against the barn, figuring that would be the safest place. The doors blew open and it got really really windy in there so they moved just inside the barn on or underneath the steps. As they did that there was a horrible loud sound and the silo broke apart and fell down on top of the milk house. If they had stayed where they were they would have been crushed by huge slabs of concrete.

(Grandpa and my uncle laid there, my grandpa covering my uncle and the dog somewhere in there too.)

Was her name Lassie? Didn’t you have several dogs named that growing up?

Quite a few. Grandma liked to name her dogs Lassie. The poor dog. She went deaf after that tornado. She never heard again. Whether it was just stress or the pressure of the wind.

It took their farm but the farm north of them and the farm south were perfectly fine. Then it went over to the next road. It hit the river bed and kind of followed along the river. Then jumped out…there’s one woods along the highway and it went through there and all the trees were just wrecked.

***

(For a while during my conducting of these interviews my two parents spoke of their memories and recollections together. Mom remembered what was necessary to protect the ruined property early on and Dad chimed in with what they both recalled of a particular situation.)

My uncle stayed over night to make sure nobody came out to steal anything. The telephone still worked. Well, I think you could call out but you couldn’t call in.

Wasn’t there some guy? my father reminded her, not having to finish his sentence.

When they were chopping up white birch trees…some guy started loading it in his truck. “Hey! This isn’t a free-for-all!” My mom recounted.

A lot of people were helping out, weren’t they? I asked naively.

Yeah, a lot of people but not strangers putting in their trunk to take home. HE was taking wood. Why would you take wood. You’d chop that up.

(Both their memories intersect and overlap and one had a picture of the details of those days that the other did not or which did not match up at times.

My father still recalls the tornado falling on a Tuesday while my mother does not recall the actual dates, him being better with those sorts of details. That is a trait I inherited from my father. He remembered details such as where the holidays were spent that first year after the tornado.)

We had Christmas dinner down there that first year, Christmas of seventy-nine.

***

What other damage did you and Mom notice as you wandered around that next day?

The chimney had fallen on top of Grandpa’s car.

How were you involved in the days that followed?

We were there constantly, back and forth everyday. I was off work for a couple days.

How did Grandpa seem to be holding up to you?

Confused, in a bit of a daze with everything that had just happened to them.

When did the rebuilding begin?

Grandpa had to decide if he wanted to even rebuild. Someone down the road might have sold their farm to him if they had been ready to retire…I remember him talking about that.

Finally they decided they were going to rebuild and by the next week there were men working to rebuild the top of the barn.

***

Mennonites are Christian Anabaptists who follow the teachings of European religious leader Menno Simons (1496-1561). They believe in pacifism, non-violence and simplicity. The Anabaptists (meaning “re-baptizers”) arose from the Protestant Reformation. They rejected the idea of infant baptism, believing the practice should be a voluntary expression of faith. Their descendants include the Amish, Baptists, Hutterites, Mennonites and Quakers.

. According to their website, The Mennonite Disaster Service was first organized in Kansas in 1950. It was an extension of the Mennonite practice of mutual aid, and the belief that their faith is best expressed through daily caring for one another. When church members or neighbours lost a barn in a fire, flood or tornado, the Mennonites would raise a new barn “to represent the love of Jesus Christ and the power of collaboration.”

. The Mennonite Disaster Service now claims the involvement of more than 3,000 Anabaptist churches and districts. They organize and manage volunteer labour, but do not provide direct material or financial donations to victims.

***

How did your parents find out about their car and all that had happened at home while they were away?

A week and half later mike (his brother/my uncle) and I went to meet them. Obviously, we had to pick them up at the airport and we told them what had happened. They said they remembered seeing something in the paper about a tornado somewhere around here, not if they knew where. Back then you didn’t have the same news as today. They didn’t realize it had hit at home here.

Even your father helped out didn’t he?

My dad was still working, but he came, as a brick layer. He helped fix some of the barn, pens and around the windows and doors. He would come sometimes after work.
There were people milling around, not as many people as the first few days, but it was a lot of mess around to be cleaned up still.

***

Where did your parents live once their home was practically destroyed? Did they stay with family?

They did for probably the first week or so and then their friends lent them a Winnebago they parked on the farm so they could stay right there because they had cows to milk and people were there all times of the day and night.

Did all the animals survive?

All the cows were fine. There could have been some pigs lost. I don’t know if there were some sows outside probably.
But most of the animals inside the barn…the tornado took off the whole top. The top of the barn was full of both straw and hay. It took the barn walls and roof and most of the hay and straw were blown away, but the floor of the barn was left in tact and therefor all the animals below it were protected.
There aren’t that many windows in a barn and they are all solid stone and concrete sides.

What other damage and destruction was there?

There was corn out in the field and it looked like someone just took a big roller over it and flattened it right to the ground. It was just pushed over sideways from all the rain and wind. Most of it wasn’t broken off. It was just pushed over sideways and flat.

One of my old report cards…up in the attic already…it blew to Drumbo, which was ten miles away. Somebody found it in their field. I got it back. Somebody eventually recognized my name and returned it to me. It was a little tattered, but it was still very legible…probably had gotten wet but had dried out and laying in a field. You didn’t know whose stuff was whose. We could have been picking up debris from the neighbours. A lot of it was broken pieces of things. Very few things were left in tact.

What happened next?

And then the clean-up began. I used to go out there every day and bring a basket of laundry home with me every night because everybody’s clothes would be filthy dirty.

Then we started knocking the mortar off, to reuse some of the bricks. Grandpa sold the bricks from the house. The whole structure was torn down. First, salvaging what you could, taking out all your personal stuff, Grandma’s photo albums were in cabinets right in the interior of the house inside closed doors so most of them were okay. She had a lot of her personal effects like that still kept. Anything out oven a room or upstairs was taken away pretty much.

It was a matter of taking all that stuff out and then where to put it. It got taken to a lot of different places. For months and months afterward, when they finally moved into their new house people were returning with boxes and boxes of the stuff they had taken to keep for them.
Many different people came and helped and then those people would take boxes of stuff to their own homes because there was no place to store it. There were no buildings left to put it into.

How long before they got their belongings back then?

It took probably almost a year after before they got all their stuff back. You didn’t know what all you were missing initially because so many people packed it into boxes and took it away. That way a lot of people cleaned up stuff for grandma so she didn’t have to do it all. For months after even food from the freezer was returned, stuff they didn’t even remember they had had.

Grandma dealt with pain and fatigue from fibromyalgia for years at this time. was all the stress hard on her condition?

Yeah she did. I’m sure it was. Sometimes you go on adrenaline initially but yeah Im sure it was hard on her too but she did well considering. Sometimes you don’t really get a chance to think of yourself. when you’re caught up with so many different things and
that was why it was good to be right there. She could go lay down anytime she wanted to.

How long before they could move back into their house?

They didn’t get into their house until almost Christmas. They were just thrilled when they could move into the basement. They just set up sheets to divide and separate the room for privacy.
One couch was rescued but their living room furniture was ruined. They had to buy a new living room set after they moved into their house.

(Years later the surviving couch was still in use in the family room of their little house. The arms were ripped, but at least it was well-worn.)

How long before the new house was totally rebuilt?

It would have probably been Feb or March before they actually moved in upstairs.
By spring all the rest, all the outside was done.
They had insurance so that paid for the majority of stuff. They had someone come in and paint and do all that stuff so Grandma didn’t have to.

How did this affect them financially?

The community, they had a tornado fund. I can’t remember if they got seven thousand dollars or how much they got.

What did Grandpa do going forward?

He took all the pine trees that were wrecked and took all the tree trunks and sawed them into 2 by fours to build the barn. Had to buy some but that really helped with the lumber, to keep down the cost too.

You were pregnant and then a first-time mom when all of this was going on. What was that like?

We spent that whole fall and into spring…almost every day I would go out to the farm. There’d be something to clean up…work at.
I felt fine…I felt good. I would take some days off, but spent a lot of days out there.
Paul and I went out fairly often in the spring.

***

It’s strange finishing the interview with her with Raffi on the television while my nephew sleeps in the next room, reminding me of a time on our old home movies with Raffi on in the background as children. That was only a few years after all this, but now it has been thirty five and I try again to imagine what it was like that day for them all and over the ones to come.

All I and many people imagine of a tornado when we try to picture one is that famous scene from The Wizard of Oz, on that Kansas farm in the thirties, a time long gone. That is even what I use as a visual in my own head.

I wanted to look back on what it was really like, with the only two people I can now ask. I want to thank my wonderful parents for telling their story and for the life they made for my siblings and I after that day that changed everything.

***

Some of the quotes from immediately after the fact I took from the following sources:

Kitchener Waterloo Record

Written by Sheila hannon

http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/environment/extreme-weather/deadly-skies-canadas-most-destructive-tornadoes/1979-woodstock-tornado.html

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Memoir and Reflections, Special Occasions, Throw-back Thursday

Tornado: Part One, Whirlwind

For years after it happened my grandma would appear visibly shaken during any summer storm. When the sky would start to darken it was clear she couldn’t help flashing back to the day her world was turned up-side-down.

She was alone in the house on the evening of August 7th, 1979 while my grandfather and my uncle (a teenager at the time) were out in the barn.

My grandparents were simple people, a hard-working dairy farmer and his wife. Their farm was everything to them and a visible sign of all they had built together over the previous thirty years.

***

Woodstock – her electric clock stopped at twenty minutes before seven.
About five minutes after the power failure, the tornado struck.

“It was just terrible,”, Ruby Witzel said Wednesday, fighting back the tears.
“It was a horrible experience – you just can’t express it in words,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion.
She stood outside her rural home near Hickson, huddled in a red and black plaid jacket, her salt and pepper hair drawn back.

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***

My parents were newly-weds during the summer of 79 and had been married just under two months, barely settled into the home they had purchased on the other side of the town of Woodstock. It was a big enough move for them both, not being overly familiar with that area, away from the farm my mother grew up on. My father had been a city kid all his life.

My grandparents are no longer here to be included in this (although I am certain they would have done gladly). They loved to tell their story and I heard it several times growing up, but now I am left with only old newspaper articles from immediately afterward.

I asked my parents to retell their own sides of that day. My mom was at home and waiting for my dad to come home from work. She had no idea anything happened until after the havoc that spread through the area.

***

When did you first know anything was wrong? I got a phone call. The afternoon was really hot and it was extremely still.

I’m not even sure who it was that called me and said that the tornado had gone through mom and dads and destroyed the farm.
I called to see if dad had already left to tell him to come home right away and they said their electricity was out and they couldn’t use their PA system to page him, but they kind of thought he had already left, but they weren’t sure. So I just waited and I waited and I waited and he didn’t show up so after waiting so long I hopped in our car and I thought I’ll drive to Woolco and see if I can find him
So I get on the 401 and it is completely stopped with traffic and all backed up. I looked at my gas tank it was almost empty. I waited for a little while and my gas tank started going down so I thought what am I gonna do so I turned around and went the opposite way and got back off and tried to go into town but it was completely closed off. There were trees all over the road and wires down.
I had no idea where he was or what was going on. I had no idea where he was for at least two hours probably. He wasn’t coming home and nobody at work saw him. I was in tears driving back to our house not knowing, how to get anywhere. Scared all by myself.

***

What about you Dad. What first tipped you off to something not right? The power went out in the store. I was done work at six and I was ready to go home. I didn’t want to stick around in case they wanted me to do some more work. I went outside and, since my parents went to Europe, I had my dad’s car, a big old Chrysler. I looked north of the mall…I thought holy smokes they’re getting a real bad storm out that way. Down south looked fine, at least what I thought.

***

“It was like a white cloud whirling around. I couldn’t see anything else,” Mrs. Witzel recalled with tears in her eyes.
“I quickly ran down to the cellar and the garage was already blowing away.”

“The wind was really blowing against the cellar door.” she said.
“I could hardly push it open,” she said, leaning against the battered wreck of her son’s new Thunderbird parked in what was once the garage.

(My mother’s two older brothers were both married and had children. My twin cousins were born only weeks before, prematurely. It had been a busy summer of weddings and births and now this had happened. It was simple proof of how my family always pulled together for each other, in good times and in bad.)

“They were in the milkhouse but it’s gone now,” Mrs. Witzel said, motioning to the east where a mound of hay and straw showed where the large wooden barn had been the day before.
“Just after they were inside the silo came down on top of the milkhouse,” Mrs Witzel said.
You can see that God really spared our lives – just by the margin that we escaped,” she said.

(This only served to cement my grandmother’s faith in God. She had come so close to losing more than property that August evening.)

***

So what did you do next? I got in the car and started driving. I got on the 401 and started driving toward home. It was getting darker and it was getting windier. Basically I got close to the cut-off and had the windows up, air on so it was nice and cool inside. I guess I wasn’t really paying attention and all of a sudden it got really windy and then it got dark and I saw something was going on ahead of me so I stopped. There were no other cars that I could see. I suddenly drove into this thing and before I knew it I was all alone. I still had it in drive but I had my foot on the break. Then it was getting worse and worse. I was getting worried and didn’t know what to do.

I just thought: I’m probably going to die. What’s going on here? It seemed like a long time it was doing this. Please stop, I thought I felt the car move, but it didn’t shift too much. I think it was more the pelting of stuff.; I was getting the debris. I didn’t get the tornado; it had already past. It was the swirl of bricks and trees and pieces of buildings.
If it was going on you’d think the car would have been moved, if it was the real thing I probably would have died. It had already gone across the 401 That’s what I believe happened. I didn’t drive into it and it hit me. I was in shock I guess. I didn’t realize what it was until later. Just married and am I going to die and never see my baby? You think the worst. When I laid down I was scared and thought I was going to die. It happened so fast but seemed like it was a long time.

I sat up. I sat for a bit, never getting out of the car, in a state of shock.
A car drove by on my ride hand side. They never stopped to help me, they were in shock too, I recall a kid looking out at me, shocked himself, I looked at him and he looked at me. That car drove slowly past.

***

The Woodstock tornado was actually three tornadoes spawned by the same storm. Two were powerful F4 twisters, with wind speeds of up to 400 kilometres and funnels two kilometres wide. The first one struck southeast of Stratford, Ont., at 6:18 p.m., carving up a path 33 kilometres long before it ended near the town of Bright.

A second, larger tornado touched down northwest of Woodstock at 6:52 p.m. It crossed Highway 401 and struck the city’s south end, cutting a swath 89 kilometres long before crossing Lake Erie and ending in New York State. A third, weaker twister struck south of Woodstock. Two people died in the tornadoes, 130 were injured and a thousand were left homeless.

***

When did you realize it was over and you were alright? I can’t tell you how long before it all died down and I sat up. Shortly after somebody from another car came running up to me and asked if I was okay. He asked me if I was hurt and I didn’t think so. He looked at me and I looked at myself. I didn’t see any cuts. He asked me if I could walk and he helped me out of my car and took me over to his. The men in the car said they were going to go back and see if the guy in another vehicle was alright.

They brought the truck driver and it looked like he was bleeding worse than I was.
They were taking him to hospital and they asked if I needed to go and I said I didn’t think I did.
They got off at the off ramp, next to the OPP station. They didn’t know what to do so they left me there and took the other man to the hospital.

At the station they were just getting lots of reports of what was happening around the county. They said something about up north area. It’s a big area, I thought, so who knows. At the police station I sat and listened, they were busy. “Yes we know there’s a tornado.” I heard them calling in off duty officers to come help. It got later and later so I used the phone. I thought I’d better call home. I called and got no answer. I think I called a few people, no answer. Any time I called I didn’t get an answer anywhere. I think I tried three or four different places.
Eventually I got a hold of your mother and she explained her parents farm had been hit, but everyone was okay, she said.
I was sitting there waiting and waiting and finally an officer said he was going out to a certain area, did I need a ride. I panicked. They were offering me a ride and so I thought I’d better take it.

He went to Oxford Centre first, which was also hit. There was a bunch of damage, getting dark by then. I must have been at the station quite a long time. He had to take another route because of the traffic tie-ups all over. I saw some of the damage. At one point he got out and told me to stay in the car because there were power lines all over the place, not wanting me to get electrocuted.

***

OPP were guarding the entrances to Oxford Centre, a hamlet 2 km south-east of the city, to stop sightseers and looters.
All but three or four of the 30 homes were severely damaged —  The worst concentration of damage outside of Woodstock.

Woodstock wasn’t the only populated area affected. Several tiny communities including Oxford Centre, Vanessa and New Durham were wiped off the map. Damage was estimated at $100 million.

***

When did you finally make it home? Eventually he took me back to our place. I pull in and see her there with the neighbour. I explained the situation. Then I took my shirt off and she cleaned my back because there were a lot of shards that had gone down my shirt. I don’t remember it being sore at all. She told me about her family and I took a shower and went to bed.

***

So Mom what did you do next? I went back home and then I think I got a phone call from Dad saying that he was at the police station and he asked me to come and get him. I said I didn’t know if I could so I said I would go over and ask the neighbour.

I knew them just barely. Maybe I had met them once before or maybe I had never met them. Maybe that was the first time I met them. I went over and their teenaged daughter was sitting on the porch. I told her that there was a tornado and I didn’t know how to get to my family. She went in and told her parents and they didn’t believe her at first, until they came out and went: Oh really!

This all took a long time because it was a long way around and when we finally got to the police station they told me he wasn’t there.
So the neighbour took me back home and as we were coming over the hill by our place a police cruiser comes up from behind us with his lights flashing so we pulled over and let him pass and then he pulled into our driveway and let Dad out.
He had bits of glass in the side of his shirt and he had his story to tell.
by then it was almost getting dark.

***

Friends, neighbours and relatives rushed out Tues. night to help rescue trapped animals and personal effects. They were back again in force early Wed., sawing up broken trees, gathering up boards and twisted sheets of steel roofing scattered like confetti through the surrounding fields.

Hay, straw and surviving animals were loaded on to trucks and wagons and taken to those neighboring farms which escaped the crushing blow of the 200 km per hr winds.
****

What were you feeling by the end of all this, after Dad was home safe? I didn’t realize how bad it was I don’t think until we went out there the next morning. We said we would just come out the next morning, but we should have gone out already that night if I’d known how bad it was.
It was a long night. If I had to do it over again I would have gone out to the farm that night, but dad was exhausted. We were both tired by that point. I had just recently found out that I was pregnant so it was scary. I didn’t know what was going on with everybody.

***

At the Witzel farm, more than three dozen cars and trucks line the road.
As the men worked at sawing the huge spruce and weeping willow trees, women chatted or tried to comfort the shaken Mrs. Witzel.

***

Excerpts were taken from the Kitchener Waterloo Record, August 1979

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