Kalamazoo Tornado

Written by Nexcerpt on May 13th, 2010 in Life & Lessons.

Reminiscences on the 30th Anniversary of the Kalamazoo tornado of May 8, 1980…

Near the center of Kalamazoo College, students had begun to gather for afternoon rehearsals in the Fine Arts Building — including, as I recall, a choir in Room 100, and a jazz ensemble I directed in Dalton Theater.

A few minutes before 4:00, I heard a peculiar siren, and stepped into the lobby with Dr. Lawrence Rackley Smith, Chair of the Music Department. We stood in front of the enormous glass wall — perhaps 15 x 40 feet — peering out at the greenish-tan sky to the southwest, listening intently. We stepped just outside to gauge what the weather and sirens were telling us.

Out on the portico, in the still, oddly humid air, the sounds were far more complex and unnerving. As an experienced composer, Larry had tremendous recall for pitch combination, tone and timbre. As a student of his (and a piano technician), I also had a great ear for sound and its texture. I said, “I don’t think I recognize that siren.” Larry’s response was more intense: “In all the years I’ve lived here, I ~know~ I’ve never heard it!”

We glanced up at the huge windows overhead, looked at one another grimly, and took off into the lobby to gather up everyone. We assembled K staff and students (and much younger Music Center students and their parents, arriving for lessons) downstairs in inner hallways — in practice rooms, and near the Dungeon Theater. There, we could hear nothing of the sirens or weather outside. One of the studios had a small radio on hand, and heard the tornado warning — then the broadcast signal disappeared.

We could see a bit of outside light from a side door near the Green Room. After a few minutes, as that light brightened, we began heading out to see what had happened. One of the first sights, just downhill from the Theater wing, was of tree limbs down behind Humphrey House. That seemed not too intense — but the sensation changed quickly. Immediately below Fine Arts, wind had torn chain link fences around Stowe Tennis Stadium ~out~ of the ~ground~! Ten- to twelve-foot tall posts and fence fabric lay crumpled across the courts, some with canvas banners still intact.

Back in Fine Arts, reports trickled in of far more damage downtown, so a few of us headed east. Sidewalks on Michigan Avenue were strewn with glass; the roadway held parked cars blown away from the curb, left sideways across traffic lanes. Although the damage hadn’t blocked the roads (and public safety teams had only started to do so) it was obvious the destruction further downtown was even worse. We headed back to campus, with more appreciation for the notion that “life is not a rehearsal.”

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