A vintage photo of tornado debris in Ohio. The fore and middle ground of the photo contain piles of debris including twisted pieces of metal and other shrapnel, photographed on a sunny day.

A shopping center in Niles, Ohio was destroyed by an F5 tornado during an outbreak in 1985. Photo Credit: National Weather Service

It was like any other night. The school day was over, and my family was waiting for my father to get home so we could eat dinner together. I don’t remember where I was specifically, but it’s likely my brother and I were playing in the living room while the TV played.

At 5:05 p.m. the first tornado touched down near Albion, Pennsylvania, and began a 4 hour and 20 minute onslaught of life-threatening tornadoes that would impact parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario, Canada.

Looking back, I realize now the danger that my dad was in. He worked near where an F5 tornado—the highest on the scale—would tear through towns and neighborhoods familiar to us.

At the time, I didn’t really understand what was happening. I was just seven years old, but I could tell something was wrong. The news focused on tornadoes and my mother was noticeably getting more and more upset as the minutes stretched by and my father’s Chevy Nova hadn’t pulled into the driveway yet. We were far enough from the path of the tornado that we wouldn’t need to shelter, but the thought couldn’t have been far from my mother’s mind. Where we would go? We didn’t have a basement where we lived, so our only option would have been the tiny downstairs bathroom in the center of our townhome.

The tornadoes were unexpected visitors to the residents of Ohio on that late spring day.

The sky was clear all through the day, and it was unseasonably hot with temperatures reaching 90 in some places. Other parts of the country were struck by high winds and thunderstorms, and as is often the case, the weather didn’t respect state lines.

More than 40 tornadoes would scar the landscape, destroying businesses and homes as well as causing more than 80 fatalities and thousands of injuries.

During this outbreak of tornadoes, the only F5 tornado reported that year would cut a path through Ohio before reaching Pennsylvania. Hundreds of homes were destroyed, and businesses were leveled, as the tornado gained strength on its trek through Ohio.

In its fury it tore 30-foot tall, 75,000-pound fuel tanks from their anchors and tossed them through the air, demolished a shopping center causing the steel girders that were still attached to the foundation to twist, destroyed a retirement home, and smashed a skating center which was key to the social life of many teenagers and some adults.  

Most vivid in my mind is a blue Volkswagen Beetle that was flipped upside down that my father showed us the next day on a drive near where he worked near Niles, Ohio.

The aftermath of any natural disaster is anything but natural.

Through all this destruction, nine lives were lost in Ohio to this one tornado, but according to a 1985 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Natural Disaster Survey report, it could have been much worse.  All of the affected communities in Ohio shared one common thread: a high level of community and personal preparedness.

The 1985 report cited two factors that demonstrated how Ohioans were well prepared to respond to the storm. At the time, Ohio had one of the most extensive preparedness programs in the country. Since 1979, Ohio held tornado and winter safety week campaigns that included the National Weather Service, state, local and county government agencies as well as private corporations.  

In Newton Falls, Ohio, where the F5 tornado initially formed, 400 homes were destroyed, but there were no fatalities, which helps underscore the importance of being prepared for disasters.

 A high level of readiness before a disaster helps to save lives, but it requires communities, local and state officials, and federal agencies to work together.

My father would make it home safely after taking shelter at work until the storm passed. That day still stands out in my mind because it was a disaster close to home. It happened in towns that I grew up around and demonstrated the power of nature. And years later, I realized it taught me another lesson: be ready.


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