Graphite sketch of sunflowers in dark green

i survived the barneveld tornadoes

And Other Fun Facts from Tornado Ally: a paper written for a meteorology course

In the spring of 1984, my mother and I were living in a little single-wide trailer on the edge of the bluffs of Black Earth, Wisconsin. The landscape was as picturesque as you’d imagine, with lush green painting the skyline, peppered with cottage farms and small-scale dairy productions along the base of the slopes.  Our little trailer plot edged one of these bluffs with tall sunflowers, which drooped heavy in the fullness of August to shed their delicious seeds.  By summer, our sunflowers were brilliant, turning their fresh faces to the coming sun every morning.  At four years old, I would sit beneath them and crane my neck skyward to see the heads dancing in the wind, with the towering bluff behind them. At four, those hills were mountains.  At four, those hills were gods.
To get into town, you had to drive up over the bluffs, and every trip would make my ears pop from the pressure changes at elevation.  It only reinforced their magic- the sheer size of them and the power they had to change me for daring to climb them, car or no.  Even at four, you worry about angering the gods.  My ears would pop, and I’d tell my mother that she was making the gods angry by daring to drive over them.  Nothing she said would change my mind- at four, I knew what I knew, and that was that.  We’re given only so much time in this world, and when the gods warn you by popping your ears, it’s time to ask forgiveness and pay your respects.  Fortunately for my mother, I was convinced this was easily accomplished.

Festge County Park stands above the valley, offering spectacular hiking trails and a gorgeous view of the lands below from a rock-walled vantage point.  I’d beg my mother to stop at the park so I could race to the edge of the stones and lean out over the world as far as I could, feeling the breeze rustle my hair and daring my bluff gods to take me.  The gentle, rolling slopes down the side of this park, only 100 feet above the world below, was no threat to my daring antics and my mother never worried about this ritualistic offering - until I paid the same ohmage to The Grand Canyon a few short years later… but that’s another story entirely.  For now, it’s enough to know that my four-year-old scorecard was being balanced regularly, and I felt safe knowing that my bluff was a god who loved me, as he never once let me fall off of his stone wall.

In early June, the Wisconsin weather was tricksy as ever, bringing floods of rain and storms threatening that year’s crop of tornadoes.  We were no stranger to them, and I don’t have a single childhood spring that isn’t peppered with tornado warnings.  I can still hear the sirens, even now, decades later.  Unfortunately, one early June night, nobody heard the sirens.  There just wasn’t enough time.

Two tornadoes came raging through the bluffs less than 45 minutes apart, but the one that everyone remembers was named after Barneveld, Wisconsin- the town it utterly destroyed.  That beast was the only F5 tornado recorded that entire year, and the storm that produced it produced over 40 tornadoes across its path.  That monster destroyed 90% of the town of Barneveld, only 20 miles to the southwest, and left a massive scar across everything it touched.  That monster killed nine people, and injured over 200 more.   That monster ate the bluff alive, throwing trees and entire houses to the sky like it was pulling weeds.  That monster came within 100 yards of our tiny trailer.

My mother recounts the night best.  She said that the siding stripped away and the rain was coming in as though all the walls were gone.  The trailer would rise into the air several feet, and then crash back to the ground again.  And again.  And again.  Each time the trailer rose into the air, she was convinced we were going to die.  Each time the trailer crashed back to the ground, something new would loose from the cabinets in the kitchen or the dressers in the bedrooms, and the world inside the trailer would dance with broken glass and live electrical sparks.  She said it was endless, and she’d run from room to room in a panic, trying to figure out where the safest place to survive could be.  She would run into my room over and over, trying to see if I was still breathing.

I was.  In fact, I was so soundly asleep that I did not wake up for three days.  I wasn’t awake when the storm came, and I slept straight through the aftermath.  If that tornado had come even a few yards closer to our trailer, it’s likely that we would have been completely torn limb from limb.  The only ace up my mother’s sleeve was her affection for waterbeds.  We had two queen-sized waterbeds in that tiny trailer, each complete with massive wooden frames and huge headboards that doubled as dressers, with each bed weighing upwards of 1,7oo pounds.  These beds weighted the trailer just enough to keep it from launching like a rocket each time the storm lifted it from the ground.

My mother recounts the story of our rescue with amusement.  There we were, her the only adult in what can now be classified as hell, and with an unconscious child to boot.  The trailer had rocked several feet off of the foundation.  The gas lines were busted clean off, and the smell was thick in the air.  The oak door- the only point of egress for the little trailer, was bloated with rainwater and swollen shut.  She screamed and screamed, expecting the world to explode around us for all of the gas in the air and getting dizzier all the time.  Finally, our closest neighbor heard her screaming and said, “I’ll be back as soon as I can- my cows are loose!!”

Whether or not that neighbor had his priorities in place doesn’t change the fact that he quickly came back with an axe and chopped the swollen door down, freeing us both.  I don’t remember going to the hospital, but we did.  I don’t remember being awake for any of it, though I must have been at some point.  My first memory of any of this comes sharply back into focus when we returned to the trailer in the following days after the storm. The last time we ever drove back up over our bluff to go home, I looked out at the utter devastation. The tornado’s path cut across the bluffs and into our valley like a brutal scar.  The woods were silent.  I’ll never forget it- and I never heard anything else like it until the day I stood on the south-facing beach of a Bahaman Island, hearing only the eerie sound of the waves and looking into the black wall that was Hurricane Andrew.  Every bird, lizard, and beetle on that island was GONE- and thankfully, our flight out to safety was only a few hours away.    I escaped Andrew by several days, but the silence was identical to the silence in the aftermath of the Barneveld Tornado, and it’s a sound I can’t escape.  It follows me down into the noise of every stormy night I’ve ever slept under.

I stood again at the edge of the cobbled rock wall at Festge County Park- or as close as I could get to it… the entire park was closed off with police caution tape.  The damage was considerable.  Trees were downed, or outright missing.  The valley was destroyed.  Local pilots took ariel images of the path, and you could see the tiny speck that was our home just off to the side of a massive scar of earth, nearly a mile wide.  Forty years later, you can still see the scar path if you know what you’re looking for.  It pops out like one of those hidden pictures when you unfocus your eyes just enough to let the horrors how creep in.

The sunflowers were gone.  The trailer was in shambles, and my mother refused to let me go inside.  She and my grandfather gutted what was salvageable from the wreckage while I sat along what used to be a fence line and looked at my bluff, still towering above, now balding and ravaged.  My mother found void checks from Iowa blowing around in the yard.  The debris was considerable, and much of it was from hundreds of miles away.  The senselessness of it was overwhelming.  How on earth had we survived this, I heard her ask my grandfather, in low tones that I was not supposed to hear.  He told her it was by the grace of God, and I knew he was right.  I lay down at the base of the bluff, right where the sunflowers used to be, and hugged the bluff-god who I thought had sacrificed himself to protect us.

As an adult, I know better, of course.  I’m firmly rooted in science, and I understand that physics and sheer luck are all that stood between us and certain death.  But science be damned- when the hurricanes come pounding down on Florida and I can hear the screaming from the wind, I can’t help but wonder if this storm is the storm that sets the accounting straight.  It’s hard not to think that nature knows you were missed, so nature will balance the sheet one way or another, and I’ve been chasing with storms ever since.  Sometimes I ran towards them, like when I helped track the storm trajectories with the Madison Area Science and Technology storm crew.  Other times, I ran away, like when we piled our infant son and a cacophony of parrots, cats, and reptiles into our car and fled Hurricane Irma all the way up to Virginia.  It’s impossible to shake the feeling that I was missed and that nature will check a mark next to my name as I die.  In the end, however, it comes to the same.  Science can explain it all, but that four-year-old knew a truth beyond her years.  Now, here on a small island in South Florida and far from the bluffs of my youth, I plant sunflowers at the border of our home each spring.  They tower over us- 15-foot pylons of joy to face the sunrise in the east.  I watch my own little boy sit beneath them, craning his neck up to see how they dance in the salty breeze.  I wonder if he sees his own gods when they dance.  I wonder if he’ll carry them forward from his youth, like I did.




Handwritten, cursive signature says "pea flower tea" in lowercase letters. The flower is a small sketch of a bloom, instead of the word for "flower".

About the author

Pea is an artist focused on building an art therapy platform through transformative art and positive erotica to help victims of sexual violence reclaim their power. She lives on a small island and hides from loud noises.