Sunday, November 20, 2011

Stories from My Mission: I Get Hit by a Tornado

I have decided to share some of my more memorable stories from my mission on my blog. For those who might read this who are not aware, the young men of my Church are expected to serve a two year mission where we proselyte for our faith (i.e. we share with people what we believe and invite them to believe as well). We do this when we turn 19 but some choose to wait a few years before they go. I left on my mission shortly after I turned 19 after completing one semester of college. I served my mission in Argentina in a part of the country known as el Litoral, which is one of the poorest parts of Argentina. It is a region characterized by hot, humid climates, rain forests, swamps, bogs and palm forests in the east, and flat, dry quebracho forest in the west. The Litoral is cut into the east and west halves by the Rio Paraná, which is the largest river in Argentina. I'll share more about the Paraná in future posts.

As I mentioned above, this part of Argentina gets a lot of rainfall, especially the part I was in at the time of this story. I was in a city called Eldorado in the province of Misiones (yes, I did serve my mission in Misiones, and I am an official resident of the city of Eldorado so in more than one way I was and still am a Misionaro ;-). While it is not uncommon for it to rain, and rain fairly hard, it usually doesn't have extremely hard storms like the one that hit us that day. Now I will say up front that for those who live in tornado alley the tornado that hit me was no F5, or even an F2 or maybe even an F1, but it was still pretty hard. It did take trees down, and cut power and caused problems all over the city.

We had been eating lunch with the branch president (the leader of our local congregation) in the city and were just leaving their house when it started to rain. We had umbrellas and ponchos so we weren't too worried but we immediately knew that this storm would be a little more intense than normal. We immediately set out for our apartment, a 15 minute walk, to see if we could beat the worst of the storm. We walked up to the end of the street and turned the corner when the rain started to come down harder. As we walked up the next street I started to become concerned that we would not make it back to our apartment before the rain got too hard, but we kept on going.
Google Earth image of where the rain started to hit us. Arrows indicate our direction of travel.
Note: For scale, each block is 100 m.
It was windy and the rain was starting to come down harder but it still wasn't that bad. I had been in worse. Still some of the leaves were blowing off the trees and were whipping across the road and I was wondering how far we could go before we had to find shelter, but my companion kept walking. (As a note for those who don't know, as missionaries we work in pairs and we have a very strict rule that we should never leave our companion no matter what. So when he kept walking I had to go after him.) When we got to the end of the second street and crossed the road I turned to my companion and said that we needed to find shelter somewhere, but he kept walking. At about that time the wind really picked up and the rain started coming down sideways. 
Google Earth image of the next part of our journey in the storm. Path starts where the path on the previous image ends. Arrows indicate direction and path ends where the tornado hit us. The houses on the left side of street were not there when this happened (back in 2003) so the tornado had a clear shot at us.
By this time I had given up on my umbrella since I realized that it would probably break if I kept it open so I closed it, but I still had my poncho on, even if the rain was now so hard that my poncho didn't do much. My companion kept walking so I kept following him. The wind and the rain kept picking up and I kept thinking, "It can't get much worse than this." It did. I was beginning to desperately look around for a place to take shelter, but there were no good places. I didn't want to be right next to a tree since the branches might break and fall on us, so we kept walking. That was when the leaves that had been flying across the road turned into twigs, and small branches. I was getting concerned. At the end of the block we took a right and kept on going.

During most of this my companion was walking in front of me so I could not see his face, and he was walking rather quickly. I thought he was just trying to hurry so I let him lead the way. I again told my companion that we needed to stop and look for some shelter, but it was like he didn't hear me. At this point the wind got really strong so I had to start shouting to make myself heard, but he kept going. I was wondering what was wrong with him since he didn't seem to acknowledge anything that I said.

At this point the small branches that were now flying across the road turned into large branches. I could hear the trees starting to crack and break around me. I thought, "OK we really have to stop." But I remembered that just up the next street only 2 blocks away (200 meters) there lived a family that we knew, and I though we could take refuge there. So I thought, "OK we only have to make it to the end of the street." So we turned the corner and pushed on. That is when it got really bad.

The wind became so strong and the rain was so thick that I could barely see. My poncho was being pushed so hard against me and the rain was coming so fast that it did little to keep anything dry. The large branches that were running across the road were in danger of ending their run inside of us. At this point I screamed to my companion to stop. At that instant we had come to a point in the road where the houses on the left side of the street had stopped. The street was also on the crest of a hill and the left side of the street dropped off sharply which meant that from our position we could see quite a distance (maybe 100-200 meters) which is unusual since our view would normally be blocked by trees or houses, which also meant that the storm had a clear shot at us without any obstacles. At the instant I screamed at my companion to stop I looked out through the gap in the trees and could see it coming.

Right then my companion, who had been walking about a step or two in front of me the whole time, finally turned towards me, and I realized why he had not stopped earlier when I yelled at him. He was panicked. I had never seen someone panicked like that before. It was something I had read about or heard about in war documentaries or in news stories of natural disasters, but I had never actually seen someone so panicked that they literally could not think or function. The look on his face was one of pure panic. For the last 400 meters he had been so scared that he didn't know what to do so he had just kept walking, but finally he turned towards me, reached out and grabbed my wrist. As soon as I saw the look on his face and his death grip on my arm I understood. We were not far from the edge of the road so I grabbed his other arm and moved him to the side of the road where there was a low brick fence topped by metal bars about four feet tall. I grabbed on to the metal bars and motioned for him to grab on (words were useless since he would not have been able to hear me over the roaring wind). In the last moment I tightened my grip on the fence and on my companion and looked up in time to see the tornado move into the street about 50 meters away. And then it hit us.

I don't remember having to fight to stay upright, but it was enough to knock us into the fence and hold us there. I don't know how long we were there but it did pass by rather quickly. The wind was still strong and the rain was still thick but at least we weren't in danger of being blown away. I noticed that we were just a few feet from the front gate of the house we had stopped in front of. I moved us over to the gate so that we could go into the yard and take advantage of the small, covered porch in front of the house, but being the overly polite, socially conscientious person that I was, I paused to clap first. In that part of Argentina all the houses are set back from the road and most have a fence around the yard. So you can't go up to the door and knock, instead if you want to get the attention of the occupants of the house, you clap. It's standard practice. Most people don't even know how to knock on doors since they never do it. So there I was clinging to the fence with my companion soaked to the bone, and I had to pause and clap before invading some stranger's yard in order to take shelter. I clapped and then thought, "This is ridiculous, they can't hear me and it's not important." So I grabbed my companion and hauled him up to the front porch of the house, which was covered enough that we could take shelter.

We sat there for I don't know how long before the wind slowed and the rain let up, and when it finally did we continued on our way. We walked up the street, another 80 meters or so, to the home of a member of our church (the house I had been trying to get to in the first place). When we walked up to the door and clapped the mother opened to door and saw us and her eyes went wide as if to say, "You were out in that?!?!" We asked her if we could come in and she invited us in. In her front room we took stock of the damage and considered ourselves lucky. From a previous experience I had learned to always keep my scriptures in a plastic bag, but my companion had not, so his scriptures were soaked. Mine were thankfully dry (mostly, even with a plastic bag the rain got in). We waited a few more minutes until the rain stopped entirely and then we set out for our apartment.

All over the city we saw trees down and broken branches. Cars got smashed and roofs damaged, but we had managed to get through it unscathed. From the time the rain started to the time we finally were able to take shelter took about 8 minutes, and then the rain stopped 15-20 minutes after that. It was a very short but very intense storm. For the next few months I would walk by the fence where we held on for dear life and think, "It's amazing that that fence is sturdier than all the other fences on the street, yet that was the one we stopped by and grabbed onto." I also remember that the house had a very large planter where they were growing carnivorous pitcher plants that were about 4 feet tall. I never met the people who lived in that house. I did stop and clap there a few times, but no one ever answered the door.


Tiffany said...

That's quite an experience! Thanks for sharing your story! I'll look forward to hearing more of your stories. :)

Jared said...

That definitely puts my earthquake to shame. I'm glad you survived the tornado. To echo Tiffany, that is quite an experience. I never had heard that story before. What sorts of other experiences do you have waiting un your sleeves?

Edwina Sybert said...

It's not best to go out and walk in a weather like that. I could only imagine what you and your companion went through. I, too, have the initial instinct to find a safe shelter during circumstances like these. Good thing I don't have to walk far as we have a safe shelter inside our home.

Edwina Sybert