Tuesday 2 May 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 2: Tornadoes

This is tornado season in the United States and reports have been frequent informing us of carnage and death. The most recent, as of this date, was a storm that struck several mid-western and southern states resulting in the deaths of 16 people. One series of storms in Texas cut a swath over 30 miles long and 15 miles wide – fortunately (though not for those whose properties were damaged) mostly in rural areas where fewer people might be affected.

Tornadoes are common on the North American plains, and world-wide for that matter. Reports from long ago are not abundant but we do know that such events were recognized as far back as the middles ages. One of the earliest reports from Britain’s is of a F4-strength tornado that struck London, England in 1091. Many buildings and bridges sustained significant damage.

An apparent tornado was reported to have occurred in what is now the Mexico City area in 1521, two day before the Aztec capital was taken by Hernán Cortés.

The deadliest tornado in recorded history struck Bangladesh on 26 April 1989, killing approximately 1,300 people. The most extensive outbreak occurred in 2011 when 362 tornadoes were counted in the southern, mid-western and northeastern United States (the 2011 Super Outbreak). Over 300 people died. The deadliest storm in America happened in 1925 when almost 750 people lost their lives.

There is a great deal of information about tornadoes from recent centuries, as they have played a huge role in the settlement of the central part of the North American continent. The United States leads the world in the number of these storms. More storms have been counted in recent years although that may have more to do with the great numbers of people and communities inhabiting the areas in which they hit and in the more developed technical methods of observing the storms. There is no trend in the numbers for at least the last 55 years in which there have been detailed statistics kept. If anything, the strongest tornadoes have decreased in frequency.

Tornadoes and other major storms have always been part of weather patterns and human history. I mentioned the hurricane that flattened Galveston, Texas in 1900 in a previous blog post - Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes: Galveston 1900. This was just one of many large and deadly storms that have affected lives around the world over the centuries. I wrote about the consequences of one severe storm that devastated southern England in 1703, in an April 2014 blog post on The Pharos BlogNatural Disasters and Their Effect on the Lives of Our Ancestors.

Sometimes it does not take a major weather event to disrupt families and cause them to make changes. One of my uncles came to Alberta from Oregon to try his hand at farming in 1931. He settled with his new wife on land he leased in the Crossfield area, just north of Calgary, and set out to become fully Canadian. His oldest child, my cousin, was born in the Irricana area in 1932. Unfortunately, in the summer of his first year a hail storm, not uncommon in that region, destroyed his entire crop. My uncle decided there and then that farming in Alberta was not for him and he moved his family back to the United States. This was just one minor incidence in the history of our family but it had profound effects on the people involved as well as impacting future generations of people in some family branches. My cousin grew up and made his life in a country he was not born into.

All of this is to say that family historians searching for information about their ancestors might be advised to pay attention to natural phenomena, perhaps in particular how events such as major storms impacted the lives and livelihoods of people and communities. How many family lines were affected or even ended when a tornado touched down?

Wayne Shepheard is a retired geologist and active genealogist. He volunteers with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy in several family history society journals. Wayne has also served as an editor of two such publications. He provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.