Lessons from the Jordan Tornado of 1976

On the afternoon of Sunday, June 13, 1976, I was with my family on Interstate 35, driving north into Iowa after a three-day vacation in Kansas City.  Diana Ross was singing about her “love hangover” on the radio as I stared out the window, watching the scenery pass by.  As we approached the town of Ames, the National Weather Service interrupted normal programming and announced a tornado warning for central Iowa.  An immense funnel cloud was spotted near Jordan, Iowa, a sleepy hamlet of 60 people and 10 homes.  We listened with concern, headed directly into the path of the storm.  

As we turned onto Stange Road in north Ames to our home six miles north near Gilbert, we saw an ominous wall of thick, dark cloud to the north and west that stretched from the surface to the sky.  The horizon was completely masked by the cloud, which heaved and swirled.  My dad pulled our copper-colored Dodge Swinger off the side of the road as we gazed in awe.  I thought I caught a glimpse of the funnel darting in and out of cloud, several thousand feet above ground level.  We sat in silence, watching, not knowing what was happening to our home.

We waited until the storm moved on to the north and east, then eased our vehicle closer to the dirt road north of county road E23, west of Gilbert.  Dad drove slowly.  Bent phone poles and downed power lines lay by the side, in the ditches and along the fencerows bordering the ravaged corn and soybean fields.  Our house was about two-thirds of a mile away from E23, nestled between two farms on either side.  We couldn’t tell for sure, but as we inched closer, we noticed something was different about those properties; something was not quite right.

Pulling up to our driveway, we stared in silent disbelief.  Where there once was a two-storied house was now a single-story shamble, the walls of which were barely erect, flimsy and tottering.  The entire second story and roof were gone.  Debris littered the yard…shards of clothing, broken 2x4s, insulation, bits of siding and shingles everywhere.  The blue Gran Torino station wagon dad drove to work was rotated 90 degrees from its original position.  Straw from our neighbor’s barns stuck sharply like needles out of the solid trunks of pine trees.  The dog kennels were wrecked but we found Mandy, our black lab, and Spike, our Brittany Spaniel.  They were shaken and filthy, but alive.

I saw my dad wondering around the yard, head down, searching.  Mom said he was looking for something…a checkbook maybe.  I wasn’t sure what to think…I was numb. I came across remnants of my possessions–a favorite jersey, broken toys.  Only then did I start feeling a sense of loss.  My dad murmured something about possessions not being important, that life is more than the things we own.  I’m not sure he even remembers saying that, but it was a teachable moment for me, one that I have not forgotten.

Amidst the rubble there were a few minor miracles.  In the roofless kitchen, shelves of neatly-stacked dishes remained intact.  In the family room, the color TV survived the demolition caused by the brick chimney which had collapsed through the ceiling.  We found a sealed pressure cooker in the yard containing several canning jars, all unbroken.  Despite their house collapsing on top of them, our neighbors emerged from the shelter of their basement unscathed.  

In the days following, my dad went through what must have been a nearly impossible task of finding a temporary home for us, contacting the insurance company, resupplying the basic essentials, coordinating with a contractor to start the home rebuilding process–all while providing for the needs of his family.  Generous friends and family sent thousands of dollars in relief, an overwhelming show of support.  

We learned that the Jordan tornado was an F5, the highest category of ferocity.  Its winds had exceeded 200 mph and at several stages of its life, the tornado more than a mile wide.  It had cut a 26-mile path of destruction across central Iowa.  In all, the Jordan tornado destroyed 67 homes (including ours), 375 farm buildings, and 14,000 acres of crops.  Estimated total damage was around $20 million.  Thankfully, and amazingly, no lives were lost.  

Even more fascinating was the rare phenomena that occurred that day.  Dr. Ted Fujita, the originator of the Fujita tornado intensity scale, said the tornado which hit Jordan was one of the most intense and destructive he had ever studied.  Besides the main tornado, two other, smaller tornadoes were present in the same system.  An F2 twister formed southwest of Jordan and moved up to join the main tornado north of town.  Shortly before those tornadoes joined, a rare, anticyclonic tornado (swirling in a clockwise direction) formed to the east (1).  One other rare phenomena occurred that day that would have a serious impact on our lives.  At a point due west of and 10 miles from our home, the tornado system turned sharply right, almost “on a dime” putting it on a direct course for our house.  

This improbable chain of events on June 13, 1976, put an F5 tornado through our living room.  I can’t help but feel special.  I feel special because I know that the God of the Universe was thinking extra hard about me and my family that day.  

When Cedar Rapids suffered through the flood of 2008, I heard many Christians claiming God was not responsible, blaming it on Satan’s work, giving the devil sole credit as if somehow he could do his mischief when God was not looking.  Some people believe a loving God would never do anything destructive to people He loves–be it the Jordan tornado or Flood of 2008.  However, I’d like to suggest we look at natural disasters in a different light.    I’m a survivor of the Jordan tornado–a fact that I believe, in some small way, qualifies me to speak on the subject of God’s sovereignty as it relates to natural disasters.  

The Master of Storms

We cannot see God, and He does not often reveal Himself except in extremely rare occasions.  But with storms, we see His powerful hand at work, His mastership of the otherwise unstoppable forces of nature that scare the bejeebers out of us.  Once when Jesus’ disciples feared for their lives as their fishing vessel was caught in tempest, Jesus demonstrated His power over nature in dramatic fashion…overwhelming them with awe (Mark 4:37-41):

“…there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up…Jesus rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Hush, be still.” And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm…they became very much afraid and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?”

I think God likes using storms to accomplish His plans, whatever they may be.  Nothing scares us silly like a good storm.  We fear storms because we can’t stop them.  God times storms perfectly…makes them happen at just the right moment.  He shakes up the people He wants to shake, for their good, to accomplish His perfect plan.  Storms bring us to the right place of feeling completely powerless, at the mercy of God.  They create a window of opportunity for us to see our real place before God, and to worship His power.  That’s a good place to be.

Not only do we see God’s power in storms, we also hear His voice in them.  Three times in his book, Jeremiah repeats the same phrase, a phrase that teaches us the power of God’s voice (Jeremiah 10:12-13, 13:10, and 51:6):

“…when [God] utters His voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and He causes the clouds to ascend from the end of the earth; He makes lightning for the rain, and brings out the wind from His storehouses.”

Do you want to hear God’s voice?  Absorb yourself in a storm.  Study it, be freaked out by it.  You will get a good idea of what it’s like when the Lord of the Universe speaks.  

Storms, like all creation, are one way we know God exists, that He is creative, that the earth and universe are His invention, designed like a great cosmic theater in which He directs His play, the play that tells all creation who He is and what He’s all about.  As David says (Psalm 19:1):

“The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.”

The Lessons of Storms

Not only do storms remind us that God is real and powerful, they also create opportunities for us to mature in faith.  First, storms show us the transience of possessions, exposing the magnitude and ugliness of our greed.  We never realize how much we love something until we lose it.  The loss we suffered with the Jordan tornado exposed all kinds of misplaced love for things that can’t last.  Jesus encouraged us to never let our life be defined by possessions (Luke 12:15):

“Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.”

Secondly, storms create opportunities to give and receive love.  In the aftermath of the Jordan tornado, we were overwhelmed by the generous inpouring of money from family and friends, by the volunteers who offered their help and gave us a place to stay.  The Jordan tornado created an urgent need for us to depend on others–a need we never would have felt if our house had been spared.  It gave countless others opportunity to be generous–an opportunity that would not have materialized if that twister had continued its course due north rather than turning east so dramatically.  

As a result we no longer hold onto possessions quite as firmly as before.  And we cherish the memory of those who came to our aid in time of need.  My mom showed me the scrapbook she kept, with all the cards, letters and even a telegram from well-wishers.

Conclusion

Some speak of storms as the random confluence of scientific forces, or the work of “Mother Nature” or some other capricious and spiteful deity looking to wreak havoc and cause trouble.  Others argue that a loving God would never bring such turmoil and chaos on people. Both of these lines of reasoning reflect a general denial of the authority of God, a belief that weather is somehow out of God’s control.

Scripture tells us otherwise.  God takes full responsibility for storms.  He uses them to get our heads up out of the mundane, everyday busyness of life.  He uses them to create opportunities for us to value eternal things instead of material things, as well as opportunities for us to give and receive support.  

Forty-one years ago, for some magnificent, terrifying reason, God interposed Himself into our lives and turned it upside down.  We were touched by His finger, reminded that stuff doesn’t matter, and overwhelmed by generosity in our time of need.  

The next time you see a storm and hear those tornado sirens, give pause, reflect, and worship the Great God of the Universe who is directing that storm. Listen to His voice, and be overwhelmed with awe.

 

Notes:

  1. Less than 1% of all tornadoes are anticyclonic.

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