Source: Ohio Historical Society
If you have never experienced a natural disaster it is difficult to explain what it is like. Everything you have always taken for granted, from running water to heat to groceries to transportation is all suddenly either totally gone or severely compromised. The day of the tornado, April 3, 1974 had been unusually warm, but after the tornado the weather took an Ohio in April dip, there were even some snow flurries in the days shortly after the tornado if my memory serves me correctly.
Dayton Power and Light had cut off gas lines to most neighborhoods hit by the tornado to avoid further explosions and fires like the ones that had ripped through downtown and other areas of town. That effectively meant that there was no way to use your furnace to heat your house, presuming, of course, that you still had a house or one capable of holding heat.
Because the downtown had been particularly hard hit, a lot of the agencies and services generally associated with municipalities had been dislocated. In the immediate aftermath of the tornado it was difficult to even know where to go to try to get help, if you could go anywhere. Many citizens found their cars buried in debris, either their own garages or the remnants of the houses of their neighbors. Even if your car was available and unobstructed the streets were full of debris. Fallen trees, downed power lines, nails, siding, boards, twisted pieces of metal, entire sections of buildings were indiscriminately tossed and remained where they landed for days.
The primary urgencies for most people were protection of whatever they still had, although I do not remember hearing of any widespread looting when your house has a wall missing it is impossible not to feel vulnerable, and protection of your family and loved ones from the elements. This was, of course, followed quickly by the need for food and clean water. Many parts of the city did not have water service, mains having been broken or in some cases destroyed all together.
Agencies like the Red Cross and FEMA swarmed into Xenia fairly quickly, but communication was spotty and a lot of people simply did not know where to go to get help. Without electricity, which was the case for most people in town, unless you had a transistor radio you were pretty much cut off from any source of information. In these days before cell phones the downed phone lines meant even talking to friends or relatives close by was impossible.
My husband and I quickly began to realize how lucky we had been. Our house had no heat and no electricity but we still had running water and except for the relatively small hole in the roof the structure was sound and could certainly be locked up and secured. Some of our neighbors had lost their houses and everything they owned. Because my mother had heat and hot water still we went to stay with her for a few days.
After our visit to Alexandria Virginia for a week ( our already planned Spring Break trip) af we returned to a town which was rather like a war zone. I still flinch when I hear helicopters because we heard so many of them during the days following the tornado. National Guard troops still guarded the city limits, requiring identification of residency in order for you to pass and all kinds of groups from the Mennonites to the Salvation Army swarmed around town trying to help restore order, keep people safe and rebuild damaged structures.
I did hear from the school system that strategies were being explored as time approached to return to work. We were, however, confronted with the fact that most school buildings were uninhabitable. Xenia High School was destroyed as was Central Junior Hi. Warner Jr. Hi was damaged, but still standing, remarkable since it was in the Arrowhead subdivision which had been among the hardest hit areas of town. In general the elementary schools had fared better than the secondary buildings. It was finally decided that Warner being the only secondary building that was viable ( I am not sure whether it was race based or simply not thought of, but East was still standing and usable and could have been used for classes ) the junior hi students would attend in the afternoon from 1-6 and the high school students would attend in the morning from 7-12. This led to some interesting times, which I will discuss in a future post, including some of our junior hi kids hosting pre-school parties while their parents were at work!
Source: Ohio Historical Society
The results of the tornado were far more varied than just having trouble getting kids to school, getting food, shelter, water and transportation to people. Downtown was the hub of the town, Xenia being the county seat the courthouse dominated the area. Beautiful mature trees were everywhere and old grand buildings in many styles from art deco to federal clustered around the courthouse block.. After the tornado almost all of the trees were rendered match sticks with jagged, broken branches. Some of the old buildings were damaged beyond repair, not to mention those lost to explosions or fires.
One of the problems that no one had anticipated–we had probably never actually anticipated a disaster of this magnitude period, was the rat problem. Evidently quite a few of the buildings downtown had enjoyed some four legged denizens of the rodentia family. I am not sure this was known pre-tornado, but it certainly was known afterwards.
We had a shed in our backyard and one day when I was sweeping the back porch I saw a rat the size of a small cat come out from under our shed. He did not appear to be in good health and just stood there looking across the yard, which fortunately was rather large, at me. He was not belligerent or threatening, he just looked disoriented and confused. I found out later our neighbor had seen him and other refugees in the woods and had put down rat poison. This fellow was probably on his last legs. I was conflicted as to whether or not to tell my husband. He is deathly afraid of rats. I do not have any problem with any creature that is a mammal and actually think rats are kind of cute. If, on the other hand, the creature has more than four legs I want it dead, with only a very few exceptions.
Our new boarder did not last long. I finally told my husband about him and he immediately suggested shooting it. I was not in favor of that. Fortunately, he succumbed rather dramatically to the poison and we were able to dispose of his carcass without too much drama.
The woods around our house had proven to be a repository for lots of things besides refugee rodents. For months after the tornado it appeared that some gods had toilet papered the trees. Only instead of toilet tissue these were pieces of aluminum siding blown from houses blocks or miles away and hitting an obstruction for the first time they had been stopped and wrapped around the tree branches. Besides siding we found all kinds of clothes hanging in the trees, all with the sleeves ripped off. Papers, checks and pictures of all kinds–baby pictures, wedding pictures, even one picture of a person in a coffin, littered the woods. We collected them and returned as many as we could to the owners if we could identify them.
Because of the force of the wind some things had been driven into the trunks of the trees. Spoon and knives were two of the most common, but I also found half a woman’s powder compact and half a pair of eyeglasses as well.
In the days following the main question on everyone’s mind was what would happen to our little town. Someone put up a sign in the Arrowhead division that expressed what we all hoped, XENIA LIVES! It has indeed lived, but it has never been the same.