Remembering last year’s Memorial Day tornado.
By Stacie Kimball
Throughout my life, I have been astounded by the power of the sense of smell. It is one of the five senses that I cannot imagine living without, however, I am comforted to know that, even without this sense, I am certain that I would still be able to pull up memories from perceived senses that linger in my mind. It has been more years than I care to say since I opened the suitcase that housed my Barbie dolls, but I can still recall the smell of the flannel that was adhered to the interior. My childhood home no longer exists, but the smell of the plaster walls in my bedroom and the scent of the dotted Swiss curtains in the kitchen still fiercely swirl in what I imagine is a cauldron of memory-evoking aromas in my brain. And just when I feel the pot-o-scents runneth over, a memory is made that will forever add to the scent soup in my head.
Enter, Memorial Day 2022…it was a day like any other, and the forecast predicted a chance of thunderstorms. And although the likelihood of rain was welcomed for the revival of green grass and summer flowers, the possibility of severe weather was not as favorably anticipated by those enjoying family time outdoors. Nevertheless, it all seemed ordinary for a May afternoon in Eagle Bend, Minnesota.
I have always been entranced by the power of tornados, but given the fact that I had gone so many years without personal experience with these true forces of nature, I naively assumed that I could spend the rest of my life avoiding an encounter. Mother Nature had different plans on Monday, May 30, 2022.
My phone was tethered to the front step railing of the house in the hopes I would capture interesting time-lapse cloud videos. My husband and I were outside keeping a watchful eye on the sky. We weren’t the only ones either. As I looked down the street, people were standing, eyes cast upward, and pointing to various dark and ominous cloud formations that churned on the horizon.
At approximately 5 p.m., the sky in the west was dark, and a large black mass that looked like a cauldron being stirred from above. It was then that the black mass shifted, and an eerie green filled the sky.
The tornado siren cut through the sound of the approaching winds and my husband, who was standing in the street, looked at me. I know we both had the same thought, “Should we go to the basement? Is this just another one of those times that we go downstairs for the five-minute waiting game that in the past had always been for nothing.”
This time was different though and my husband said, “I don’t like the looks of that,” as he pointed at the sky.
I grabbed my phone from the railing and hurried inside. My father was looking out the west windows of the house, and he was about as anxious to take cover as we were. His 87 years in Minnesota had never put him face-to-face with a tornado, so why would this storm be any different? Still, we all made our way to the basement steps as the winds outside began to roar and the tornado siren rotated around blaring a loud warning.
My feet touched the basement floor as the winds howled louder. My father had two steps before he would be safely downstairs, and my husband was on the landing where the steps took a turn at the east door of the house. I remember my hands were shaking as I said, “Hurry, we have to get in the basement.” The impending danger of an actual tornado seemed far too real at this point.
Suddenly, it sounded as though a large ocean wave hit the house, a loud “WHOOSH” sound that lasted only three seconds. It was unlike the sound I had expected, the freight train noise people speak of when sharing tornado experiences.
And just like that, it was quiet, only the sound of rain lingered. My cat bolted up the stairs, and I hollered at my husband to get him. A part of me thought, “This is what NOT to do – you don’t go after the pet,” but things had settled down outside, and my request felt reasonable. As my husband made his way through the house, I heard him say, “We have no trees. WE HAVE NO TREES!” In my head, I concluded this had to be an exaggeration. How was it possible that 14 trees on our city lot were gone in merely three seconds? As my husband approached the landing and east door of the house for a second time, he said in a troubled tone, “The neighbor’s roof is gone and the big pine is on our house.” I couldn’t visualize what he was explaining, however, pictures of tornado damage from news stories filled my mind. What were we going to see when we came up from the basement?
The next few minutes I do not recall. My mind may have been busy conjuring up images from movies, or maybe I was just in shock, but the next thing I remember was walking out the back door of the house onto the deck. My eyes filled with tears as my brain tried to process everything I was seeing.
Trees were down everywhere. One tree was on the house, one was on the garage and there were many on the ground. Twelve of our 14 trees were forever gone. Sidewalk cement was heaved up from tree roots into concrete walls. Electrical wires were on the ground, and more than one bird lay dead on the wet grass. I was startled as I looked north and saw the crumpled steel of the nearby grain bins, each dented and folded piece of metal shining differently than they had on other evenings.
The town was quiet. Not a quiet you would experience if you woke up in the middle of the night and everyone was sleeping. This was different! No birds were singing, no children were playing, and I didn’t even hear vehicles, but this didn’t last for long. Within moments, sounds began to pierce the early evening hush. First it was voices – voices of people outside on their phones calling loved ones to tell them they were ok. Then I heard gasps of astonishment as people took in the damage all around them. I heard, “Are you ok,” as neighbors checked on each other.
In no time at all, flashing lights of city and county vehicles filled the streets, chainsaws began buzzing (an unmistakable sound of the summer of 2022), and a group of ladies walked down main street with sandwiches they had prepared for anyone who might be hungry. I remember thinking what a truly selfless gesture of community and kindness that was.
While so much of this evening remains fresh in my mind, there is one surprising experience that has secured a place in my imagined potpourri bowl of memories, and what has inspired this written recollection.
As I stepped onto the deck shortly after the tornado enveloped our house, I was hit by so many intense smells. I will never forget all of them. I could smell the rain, the wetness that soaked the ground. I could smell electricity in the air. Not only storm electricity, but actual electricity from power lines ripped from houses and away from transformers. I could smell the black earth that hung in clumps from large roots newly ripped from where they had been growing for so many years. The smell of green grass and fresh flowers permeated the air, but it was unlike the normal smell in the summer when everyone is mowing their lawns. This was intense, a tang so concentrated it was like everything green was resting on my tongue.
Another intriguingly potent fragrance that brought sadness to my heart was the smell of wood. Trees that had snapped in half gave off a scent that was far more intense than any logging site or lumber yard. This was the woody aroma of deciduous trees mixing with the piney perfume of conifers that had been torn from the places they once provided lovely shade on sweltering summer days. Before long, a distinct fragrance of fuel from hard-working chainsaws and heavy equipment also drifted throughout the town.
Indeed, it was shocking to look around and see the destruction created by the F1 tornado. I am still getting accustomed to the newly formed views previously hidden by towering trees or structures that once stood. All that is gone, or that has been newly constructed, will serve as a reminder of what happened on Memorial Day for years to come. Twisted and downed trees will remain in groves, and tree stumps will eternally mark where fully mature trees once stood; the same trees that had been used as mile markers or landmarks when giving directions in a rural community. But the destruction of the tornado lends itself to improvements and changes as well.
The winds of that evening passed, but the memories remain. The memories can come flooding back by way of a flower or even a squash plant that wasn’t there before, but its seeds were simply placed there by a tornado passing through. Or the soft song of a windchime in the spring breeze can bring your mind back to that evening when the chime’s tubes fiercely clanged against each other and then continued throughout the night when the town was so quiet. For me, I will remember the smells that filled the air. I am unsure if I will experience the intensity of those aromas again, but it is something that will forever remain in my mind.
As another May approaches, I recall the sights, sounds, and smells of Memorial Day 2022. Blessings are counted by what remains, what has changed, or what could have happened and didn’t. I am proud of the members of a community that came together to help each other rebuild and recover. I am also grateful and feel blessed to be in tune with my own senses, and to have recognized and committed that array of aromas to my memory as it inspires me to recall the good aspects of that evening too, such as the power of nature and the beauty that God created for us to enjoy with ALL of our senses.