On May 22, a devastating tornado spread death and destruction in Joplin, Mo. Since that day, federal and state authorities and the American people have reached out. Rebuilding is already under way.
It’s been a season of tornadoes and storms not unlike the summer of 1984. That year the tiny village of Barneveld, 30 miles west of Madison, was ravaged by a tornado stronger than the one that struck Joplin. The Joplin tornado packed winds of 200 mph, while the Barneveld storm sustained winds of more than 300 mph. Nine in Barneveld were killed and some 200 others injured.
Today, everything in Barneveld looks beautiful and new. That’s because it is. All of the trees and 90 percent of the buildings were destroyed and blown away. Some debris ended up in Green Bay.
On May 29, President Barack Obama visited Joplin to comfort survivors and speak at a memorial service for those who perished in the storm. He offered words of hope. “The spotlight may shift. But we will be with you every step of the way until Joplin is restored.”
The sentiments are bittersweet for me and I’m guessing anyone else who has lived through the devastation of a tornado and its aftermath. Media accounts of the Barneveld tornado — we even made People magazine — often focused on how our small town banded together to help each other and how relief poured in from the outside.
But much else got missed, including how hard it is to rebuild, literally and figuratively. Material help is abundant after natural disasters, but emotional support from outsiders often falls short. I learned that hearing other people’s storm stories while you’re digging out debris is not all that helpful. And I saw how stress can wear on early good will, even dividing residents and former friends. As I watch the suffering in Joplin, I’m reminded that sometimes one can help best by putting down the chain saws and checkbooks and just listening.
• • • •
On June 7, 1984, the Barneveld School Board met to discuss the rookie superintendent’s contract. I was that superintendent. By midnight it looked like the process might continue for hours over a difference of $500. I conceded and we called it a night. Another round of horse-trading would have cost us our lives.
My wife, Beth, was awake when I got home. The unsettled weather made it difficult for her to sleep. Still wound up from the meeting, I went to the kitchen. When I finally climbed into bed, I heard the wind come up and trees shake. The weather seemed otherworldly. Then, a strange calm. I felt something winding up to an impossible tension. I hopped up. “We should go downstairs,” I said. Beth was too sleepy to move.
“Come on!” I yelled and picked up 2-year-old Kate from the next room. An explosive thunderclap shook the house, followed by the lonely wailing of a siren. Panicked, we rushed to our basement bathroom with our teenage daughter following. The power was gone. We shut the door and huddled in the dark as things flew and tumbled across our roof. The wind shrieked as if a 747 had backed up against our house with engines wide open. Then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over.
It started to rain, softly, then harder, until it was coming down as violently as the storm had blown. I saw emergency lights and heard sirens. People were moving with flashlights, trying to comfort someone in front of a ruined house. “Wait until the rest of the town sees this!” I thought. The devastation was so appalling that it did not occur to me I was on the periphery. I started uptown and came upon more destroyed homes. Again, I thought I was in the epicenter of the wreckage. Not even close.
I searched houses for trapped survivors. They all seemed empty, but it was impossible to know if residents had evacuated or if they were under thousands of pounds of debris. A couple in our neighborhood, sleeping on the upper floor of their house, ended up in the basement with their truck on top of them. I went into a house in which there was a crib. I rummaged through the wreckage. When I smelled gas in the dark, ruined kitchen, I backed out. That kind of indecisive scene repeated itself as citizens did the best they could in the blackness and the cold.
When I returned home, Beth was teary and distraught — so much so that I worried something was wrong with one of our children.
“Beth, what is it?”
“It’s Betty. Her house is gone.”
Betty was our black dog. Even though Betty had to stay outside because of Beth’s allergies, she was family. We jogged with her, played with her, and at night tied her to a utility shed that served as her doghouse. The shed was gone. The only thing remaining was a bare dirt spot. Down the hill behind my house, I saw a pile of lumber and debris.
I was sick at the thought of what might have happened to Betty. I headed down the hill and poked around in the wreckage of the shed until I saw the liquid reflection of brown eyes. It was Betty. She shivered violently — frightened but uninjured. I carried her back. Like Dorothy, she had flown in her house.
• • • •
I awoke Friday to a hushed conversation in the kitchen. I went in to find Beth talking to Doug Malliet, the bookkeeper for the school district. It was oppressively humid. The throbbing of big blades in the oppressive humidity portended an anxiety and tension that returns to me to this day when I hear a helicopter.
“Did you hear that Kirk was killed?” asked Doug, referring to Kirk Holland, a teacher and our athletic director. Then he named others. No emotion came. I gazed toward the ridge where complete devastation had occurred. There were no trees or standing houses. Busted up lumber, overturned cars and uprooted telephone poles dominated the landscape. The National Guard established a perimeter and quarantined the town. Some looters were apprehended.
After the tornado, local efforts were disjointed. My science teacher warned that some stored chemicals were unstable. He collected and detonated them. I walked around to see where I could help. People everywhere were clearing out debris. Everywhere I asked, the answer was, “We’re OK, better see who needs help the most.” I came to the American Legion. Members were sorting through the mess. Since almost no one had a standing building, they had a problem deciding what to do with the stuff — said stuff being beer. I volunteered my garage and worked through the afternoon filling up my truck with beer cans and liquor bottles that survived and were now buried in the wreckage. An alcoholic Easter egg hunt. With no businesses left, the beer eventually ended up with neighbors who served it in their front yard to workers and volunteers.
As days passed and our minds cleared, a priority of needs became evident. But in the first days, the beer operation was typical. Everyone wanted to be busy. It did not matter doing what.
That weekend, I met the School Board in my office. It was raining. Water poured through the destroyed roof of the school building, where about 280 children attended kindergarten through high school. Department of Public Instruction officials were already suggesting we consolidate with a large district, but we weren’t interested. We were going to rebuild. I was directed to begin the process of hiring a contractor. As they exited, a board member said, “You have a lot of work to do.” Then they left.
Most went to homes in the country, away from the center of the storm. How different the experience was for those of us who could not escape the destruction. When I left work, I walked by rubble. At home, I looked out and saw the catastrophe that used to be my neighbors’ yards. Through open windows every evening, I smelled Barneveld burning in the dump where they hauled wreckage in an endless stream of trucks.
We secured a small trailer that became the administrative office. It was hot and stuffy with a cheap air conditioner that barely stirred a breeze. In that hellhole, we orchestrated the rebuilding of the school in addition to all the normal school work that goes on during the summer. This was pre-computer. Records were destroyed. Estimates had to be constructed from scratch, making budgeting a nightmare.
The make-do administrative trailer was barely adequate and unsuitable for private conversation. I had much interviewing to do with the death of my athletic director and other key resignations. I needed privacy. I thought of “Cowboy Bill” Henning. Six foot 6 and skinny as a rail, Bill was a principal in Sauk Prairie and an old friend. He was a rodeo fan who went to events in a truck with a full box camper top. I called. He said if I could stand it, he would bring the topper. He showed up the next day. We set up two 50-gallon barrels in the front yard of the school and gingerly lowered the camper onto them. As he braced the front with telescoping poles, Bill assured me it would work and, if it did not, I “would be the first to know.” With a flourish, he pulled out a cast iron staircase and dropped it in front of the camper.
“Deluxe model! Tell me when you’re done.”
It was hot and dirty, but private. I moved in. Not everyone entered with the same alacrity. No one refused, but I remember a teacher candidate giving me a suspicious look. He climbed in with me but was unsettled as the “office” swayed in the wind.
After work, I found myself tied up with petty obsessions. We heated our house with wood. Every day walking home, I eyed fallen trees and then went back to cut them up. It seemed important. People made a big deal out of insignificant matters if there was the opportunity for a positive boost. The town was emotionally bankrupt. It felt good to receive anything. Without enough empathy or emotion to go around, a cord of wood or a cup of coffee had to do.
It was frustrating talking to people who could not fathom our experience. The worst were those who would interject, “I was in a bad tornado too …” There are meteorologists who maintain the intensity of the Barneveld tornado has never been exceeded. People in Barneveld were not in the mood to expose their agony only to be compared to someone else’s tall tale.
Monte Hottman, the Dodgeville superintendent, took me to lunch. He told no stories, offered no advice, only listened. He said little other than to offer support. It helped. Because of my position, I received that kind of attention once in a while. A lot of folks in Barneveld still have not told their stories.
Beth invented a name for tornado tourists. She called them the “gawker patrol.” This cavalcade was a constant presence throughout the summer as the curious came to stare at our misfortune.
I had not been a person who cried. Barneveld changed that. It happened first in the town garage. Folks were struggling so desperately that they could not find the time or the place to feed themselves. Between the Red Cross, a local lady named Betsy, and a host of volunteers, an all-day, all-night eating and gathering place arose phoenix-like in the town garage. Food and coffee were always available. No money was asked but everyone donated. The hours I spent there with my family and other exhausted residents became a reprieve from the pain. The room was big with a high ceiling for highway equipment. Conversation was low, almost hushed in the dimly lit metal building, but it was friendly and soothing.
There for lunch one day I bumped into Mike Holland, Kirk’s son. Mike and his mother had survived the tornado while Kirk had not. I had not seen Mike since the storm, nor had I thought about the Hollands. In retrospect, I find it hard to believe that I didn’t even try to visit them. But there was so much to do that no one had time to reflect on the losses. In a way, it was kind of a blessing.
I knew Mike well. He was an outstanding runner, as well as a good student. I had encouraged and run with him on the snowy Iowa County roads. At that time, I was not much of a hugger. But when I saw Mike, I hugged him and felt a relief from the emptiness. I choked up and cried a little. The moment passed and we went on our ways. I have been more emotional and sensitive — a mixed blessing — ever since.
• • • •
The storm cracked me a little. The school bus crash broke me. Although it occurred during the brutal winter that followed, the months between the tornado and the crash are linked together in my mind. I am not alone in feeling that the storm was a recurring nightmare that continued to haunt us.
I was headed home when I heard we had a bus in trouble. Every day seemed hard and I considered leaving it to others, but five minutes later, I was heading out Highway 18-151 to a turn off on a bleak county road. When I crested a hill and looked down into the next valley it was impossible to see anything. Where the road passed between a narrow cut, high winds were blowing snow across the road at gale force, creating a complete whiteout. Soon we became enveloped and stopped. We could not see the road, only the strobe lights of the bus and barely discernible red lights. I ran toward the icy hell until I could make out emergency vehicles, people running and yelling, and moans of fear and pain from children.
Then a truck hit me. I was running on packed snow when the gentle nudge of a rescue vehicle took my feet out from under me. The next thing I knew, I was holding on to the step panel while being dragged with my feet dangling near the rear wheel. The truck stopped shortly. When the driver jumped out, he saw me getting up. He checked to see if I was all right, and we both went on to the accident as if nothing had happened. There is a dreamlike unreality to this and all of the suffering that people endured in the year of rebuilding.
Inside the bus, children were bleeding and a few were crying. All were frightened. A car had run head-on into the bus. By the time I arrived, the injured were being moved. One hates to think of the chaos that might have ensued today if dozens of student texts had gone out, causing parents and others to flock to the scene in the middle of the dangerous whiteout.
Another bus came to transport the uninjured students home. I left my car at the scene and rode along. At each stop, I would go in, break the news to parents, and answer questions. By the end of the route, there were only two little ones left. They were tough kids. Their family had moved a lot. We rode along looking out the window at the snowy fields and hillsides as the setting sun cast a pink alpenglow on tall oak trees still proudly holding on to dead leaves. I had my arms around the two children. It was like holding Betty the dog. I could feel their bones shaking. We let the kids out in a desolate area of town that became affectionately known as Tin City for the government trailers that were placed there to house those displaced by the tornado. Hand in hand I walked the children through randomly parked snow-covered cars. For the second time that year I became aware of tears.
Emotions ran high for everyone. Even the sports teams were affected. Our gym was gone. The Mount Horeb School District offered its facility but it had its own teams. The only time we could use it was before school. The girls on the volleyball team, for instance, had to get up, find rides to school, hop on a bus, practice, shower and get back by 8 a.m. Expected to do well after a successful season the year before, they floundered. Whether it was the practice, travel, ungodly hours, or simply bad play, they could not win. As the weeks dragged on, spirits sagged.
It came to a head one night on a long ride back from another loss. The kids were talking in a subdued manner when coach Kevin Hoffman became aware of the sniffling and coughing of someone holding back tears. As the player lost control, other girls became affected and began to cry. Soon the whole bus was crying, including the driver.
The boys had their moments too. Opposing fans waved towels around their heads and howled, “Whoosh!” Then there were the jokes. “What’s playing at the theater in Barneveld? (answer: “Gone With the Wind”). “What’s two blocks long and goes 200 miles per hour? (answer: Barneveld).
I learned a new phrase that summer from a man who had been hired to oversee the distribution of federal aid. When I commented on the frantic fashion in which he made decisions, he said, “You are better off to ask forgiveness than permission.” I became more aggressive and proactive in my work. For better or worse, that has characterized my style ever since. This was hard on others around me. I became impatient with those who could not move fast enough or understand my motives.
On June 21, that philosophy smacked up against bureaucracy. I was inspecting the construction of the school (we built around the skeleton of the old building) when a person introduced himself as an engineer from the U.S. Department of Education. He told contractors they might not get paid if we did not follow his procedures. He seemed oblivious to the fact that we had enough insurance money to move ahead without federal assistance if worse came to worst, and that other federal authorities were supporting our decision to keep moving.
He was older and pallid looking — not the kind of person I would normally pick an argument with. I accused him of being counterproductive. He became upset, but I was adamant that he was obstructing critical work. His eyes glazed over, he backed up against the wall, slid down and collapsed. I leaned over him and could not detect any breathing. No one moved. I pinched his nostrils and exhaled into his mouth. His chest inflated and his eyes popped open. He did not know where he was. We called the ambulance and never saw him again.
I do not remember ever being more single-minded than I was that summer, or taking so many risks with people’s emotions. Getting the school open was all that mattered. After we chose our contractor, there were hard feelings because he was a nonunion employer and many residents worked in the trades. One of them was on the ambulance squad and was a union representative. The night of the storm he worked without a break. It was especially terrible for him because he was close to the victims. I remember the look on his face when I told him whom we had chosen to build the school. He was a gentleman about it but he told me that he could not believe I would be so cold. I had to be. The school was going to open on time.
Closer to home, I was unprepared to deal with Beth’s sudden hospitalization. Three weeks after the storm, Beth went biking. I was sitting on the porch with a friend when the phone rang. Beth had tumbled off her bike and was taken away in an ambulance. The hospital sent her home. The next day she woke up in the middle of the night with an excruciating headache. I rushed her back in to Madison. She had a contusion on the brain. She was not herself for a couple of weeks and yet she had to run the house and take care of the kids. Everyone was so busy and overwrought that few people even knew what had happened to her. The ones who knew did not realize how serious the injury was. No one helped. I fell short too. I should have been more attentive.
• • • •
Months later we were still learning how deeply the tornado had affected us. Neighbors experienced extreme anxiety before approaching storms. One rebuilt his house with a storm-proof basement. For a long time, and perhaps to this day, his family would retreat downstairs to sleep there at the hint of a bad storm. Other friends told me it was more than psychological. They became ill at storm warnings.
It affected the students. They feared when skies darkened and asked, with voices earnest with worry, whether we should call off school. I remember the first tornado drill the following spring. We were such a small district that all students were in one building. When the alarm went off, hundreds of children of all ages moved with eerie speed to their designated spots. They kneeled down, still and silent except for their beating hearts.
My family’s reactions were subtly disturbing. We realized that 2-year-old Kate had seen so many helicopters and bulldozers that she believed they were exclusively linked to tornadoes. Once, driving by a construction site in Madison, she caught a glimpse of a bulldozer. “Daddy, when did the tornado go through here?” she asked.
Barneveld received much financial support. It is too bad that some could not have been traded for a release from the stress. The survivors pushed themselves, pushed those who tried to help, and pushed each other. In my case, I removed an insurance adjuster from the job, argued with fellow villagers about contractors, and perhaps caused a federal engineer to pass out arguing with me. I fired a subcontractor and got into an argument with the editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. I did not pay enough attention to my family.
Maybe if the pressure had not been on, the community would not have recovered enough to survive the brutal winter that followed. On the other hand, the pressure numbed everyone’s feelings. The town and school received so much attention as symbols of the survival of the whole that individuals had to fend for themselves. The village adopted the slogan, “We’re not giving up — we’re going on.” A more accurate one would have been, “Whatever it takes.” Years later, I wonder if it took too much.
The storm remains a poorly understood event. There were victims and heroes. Sometimes they were the same. In the months after the storm I was closer to the people of Barneveld than ever. But within a year of the trauma I found myself growing away. Many who were heavily involved in the rebuilding left. Pastor Jan, who worked indefatigably to keep up spirits, left. Steve Eveland, the mayor during the crisis, built another house out of town and resigned. Six key teachers and my loyal bookkeeper, Doug, moved on. Once school let out in 1987, I left too.
In the end, some of the people who became so close to the town during its struggle cut their ties.
The storm aftermath was photographed, televised, dramatized and set to music in a Miller beer commercial. The media grasped the heroic moments correctly but often missed the more complicated and messy ones. The popular rendering of Barneveld is one of hope and rebirth, but there was darkness as well as light. Understanding that deep-seated reality is necessary if we are to offer better support when tragedy strikes.