Twenty years beyond the twisters

An apartment building a couple of blocks from where I lived in Clarkfield in the summer of 1992.

June 16, 1992.

What I remember about that day was the heat and humidity. What I remember about that night is sheer terror.

Twenty years. It seems like a lifetime ago, and I’m glad I can say that now. Memories fade, fears subside. I no longer cry in a thunderstorm or hide in the basement when hail pellets hit the window. I have 20 years to thank for that.

Throughout the pages of this weekend’s edition of the Daily Globe, you will read about the destruction left in the wake of tornadoes that ripped apart the communities of Chandler and Lake Wilson and shattered lives, visibly and invisibly, on June 16, 1992.

I was three weeks into my first job away from home, hired as a 4-H Summer Assistant for Yellow Medicine County, when the tornado outbreak swept across southwest Minnesota.

This is the table where my roommate and I crawled under as the tornado hit Clarkfield on June 16, 1992.

More than two dozen twisters were reported that night, including one just outside the community of Clarkfield, where I was living. When my roommate arrived home from the office (she was a newspaper reporter), she invited me along out to the war zone to take some photos.

The image she captured made the top of the front page of the Advocate-Tribune that week, and I can still remember sitting in her car and staring in disbelief as she’d clicked the camera shutter. The tornado had picked up a large, two-story farm house and set it back down, on its roof, with a tree coming up through the middle of it. After seeing that destruction, the street flooding photos she shot in nearby Dawson and Boyd seemed a bit ho-hum.

I don’t remember what time we returned home that night, or how long we’d been there, when Round 2 ushered in by surprise.

The view from our window the next day.

I can’t recall the blare of the tornado sirens. What I remember is seeing this amazing flash of neon green outside the living room window, and screaming at my roommate to get under the table.

We were lucky. We were in a building built of brick and steel. The building swayed, the sounds were deafening; and as soon as it hit, it had passed. Of course, 20 years ago, it seemed like time stood still — that the chaos would never end.

I remember darkness and broken glass. I remember shaking, the uncontrollable kind of shakes that made my teeth chatter.

The somewhat cleaned up walkway we had to get through to reach Main Street. It was filled with tin, tree branches and other debris.

I remember clinging to the patchwork quilt my grandma made, and carrying it under my arm as my roommate and I cautiously stepped over downed wires, found our way around tree trunks, limbs and branches, and walked through water puddles as we ventured first to the Clarkfield Fire Hall and then to the local school, where the Red Cross was mobilizing.

In one evening I went from being a naïve farm kid learning to be an adult, to an adult living as a victim of Mother Nature.

I wasn’t ready to be in that situation in my life, but then life has a way of taking its own course, doesn’t it?

Having survived a tornado, I can tell you the last thing I thought I’d ever do was voluntarily enter another war zone. But then, I had an editor at Redwood Falls who forced me to face my fears and develop the thick skin we journalists need.

Lee sent me out to take photos at an accident scene one day —it was the first time I’d ever taken accident photos. The car was mangled beyond recognition, and I’d learned that a baby was killed.

My car was parked between this building and that little utility post on the right. We had to lift tin from the hood and roof of the car to get it out.

A life was lost and I was taking pictures of the aftermath. It seemed heartless, and for the first of many times, I questioned my career choice. I begged Lee to never send me out on an accident call again, but he ignored my request. A week later, I was sent to another accident scene. This time, I snapped photos as EMTs tended to a woman screaming in pain. As I recall, she had a broken leg.

The more I complained about covering accidents, the more it seemed I was the one sent to take photos. I should have learned not to complain —instead, I learned to separate the emotional trauma from the job. Reporters do that — I do that — and even then it’s hard to get beyond the “life sucks and then you die” approach to living.

Nearly six years after June 16, 1992, tornadoes ravaged the communities of Comfrey and St. Peter. With my somewhat thicker skin, I realized if I was ever going to “get over” the trauma from the Clarkfield tornado, I needed to step into the war zone.

Having a job to do, rather than being the victim, helped me to heal. I could relate to the stories of terror and the questions of where to go and what to do.

The F3 tornado that went through Clarkfield uprooted trees, exploded tin buildings and grain bins and severely damaged homes. Six people were injured that night in Clarkfield, but everyone survived.

There’s a saying that time heals all wounds, and while the first anniversary was marked with raw remembrances, the nightmares for me had mostly subsided after five years. They resurfaced briefly after my work in Comfrey and volunteering as a one-day stringer for the then-sister publication, the St. Peter Herald.

I can honestly say it’s been a while since I’ve awoken from nightmares of twisters chasing after me. Then again, I don’t watch the weather channel and you can’t force me to watch the movie, “Twister.”

Today marks the 20th anniversary since that night of terror in Clarkfield. It seems a bit of a relief to be able to say that. OK, 20 years have passed. I’ve moved on. I’ve changed. I’ve survived.

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