In November 2005, I wrote a story about a helicopter used in medical emergencies.
When I went to take a look at the helicopter, the pilot invited me to go for a ride. “We can go wherever you want,” he said.
“Let’s fly the path of the tornado,” I suggested.
I was then living in Evansville, Indiana, where a deadly tornado had recently struck in the middle of the night, killing 25 people. We headed south, flying over the Ohio River and crossing into Kentucky. A few minutes later, we spotted the cornfield where the tornado had first touched down.
It looked like a giant rake, hundreds of yards wide, had been dragged over the cornfield, snapping crops. The tornado skipped over the river into southern Indiana, uprooting trees and smashing mobile homes.
The land around the Ohio River near Evansville is mostly flat and prone to severe weather, unlike my hometown in eastern Kentucky. Morehead is surrounded by hills, terrain that – I was told as a child – protected us from strong storms. And to a certain extent, that’s true. Hillsides can slow down a tornado, if the circulation of the storm is weak, said Ron Przybylinski, one of the US’s leading tornado experts with the National Weather Service in St. Louis, Missouri.
“(But) if you have a very intense circulation – meteorologists call it a mesocyclone – on the southwest side of a supercell storm there is a high probability that a large tornado will travel up and down the hill sides,” Przybylinski told me in an email.
Meaning that, if the tornado is strong enough, it can scale hills without losing momentum.
That’s what happened on March 2, when a tornado struck less than 30 miles from my hometown, devastating the city of West Liberty, population 3,435.
My mother is a nursing supervisor at St. Claire Medical Center in Morehead, the largest hospital in the region. She was working that afternoon, when warnings about a storm were issued for the area. Students were dismissed from school early, and after a tornado hit West Liberty, the hospital declared a Code 5.
“That means that they’re expecting casualties,” my mom said. “Great numbers of casualties.”
The wounded began arriving soon after the tornado passed through. People with facial injuries and broken bones. Children and babies who had been picked up and flung aside by the 140-mile-an-hour winds. A triage center was created to treat people with minor injuries. Another area was set up to counsel people suffering from emotional stress. Critically injured patients were sent to Lexington, the state’s second largest city, where hospitals could provide more specialized care.
The tornado didn’t just destroy homes, patients from West Liberty told my mom. It wiped out churches, banks, the city’s newspaper office and hospital.
“They weren’t ready to be released because they had no where to go,” my mom said. “They lost everything.”
By the time her shift ended that evening, the hospital had treated more than 200 people. Worn out from working nonstop, my mom joined some other nurses in the doctor’s lounge, where they slept for a few hours before returning to their jobs.
The tornado that ripped through West Liberty was part of a larger system that also spawned twisters in southern Indiana. It killed 34 people in Indiana and Kentucky, including six in West Liberty. According to the National Weather Service, the tornado was the strongest eastern Kentucky had experienced in a quarter of a century.