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If Hope Can Rise From The Rubble Of A Tornado, It Can Rise From A Virus Threat, Too

april 1999 tornado
Mark Lyons
Bernie Franks is taken from the wreckage of his home by firefighters in Montgomery, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati, early Friday morning, April 9, 1999 after his neighborhood was hit by high winds.

Helplessness and hopelessness are the inevitable by-products of disasters such as the one we are experiencing now, shut up mostly inside our homes, fearing to go outside without a face mask, and avoiding human contact, even so much as a handshake for a friend or a hug for ones we love.

Our world is suddenly a dark and foreboding place, and it seems that many have little faith that life will ever be the same as it was before we heard of coronavirus or COVID-19.

But when I am discouraged, I think of our neighbors in the Cincinnati suburbs of Montgomery and Blue Ash whose lives were turned upside down in the early morning hours of April 9, 1999.

That was when a unrelenting tornado, with wind speeds up to a seemingly impossible 260 miles per hour, ripped through those communities' quiet suburban subdivisions and left behind a trail of death and destruction that made it seem that it would be impossible for Blue Ash and Montgomery to ever be the same again.

The ones who live there now and lived through that 21 years ago this week know there is hope. There is always hope. There was hope then and there is hope now.

Those people lived through the worst that nature has to offer and learned the hard way that life goes on.

The hundreds of homes and businesses that were destroyed have been rebuilt or replaced; the subdivision streets and cul-de-sacs that were littered with the debris of houses that had been ripped apart 21 years ago are lined with flowering magnolia and dogwood trees once again.

I was there that morning in April 1999 for the Cincinnati Enquirer, along with a large team of reporters and photographers documenting the destruction.

My job was to do my own reporting and take feeds from the other reporters. At the end of the day, I would craft all of what we gathered into one large wrap-up story for the front page.

The tornado had begun its rampage through Montgomery and Blue Ash at 5:17 a.m., officials said. By the time I got out there, it was less than three hours after the destruction took place, and I witnessed a scene of devastation that reminded me of the old photos of bombed-out French and Belgian villages in World War II.

I was stunned.

People, some dust-covered and still in their pajamas, silently poking through the ruins of their homes. Piles of furniture that had blown out of houses stacked in the streets and on the sidewalks. Overturned vehicles. Piles of clothing and children's toys strewn across the streets.

I remember walking along an embankment on Cornell Road, just next to Sycamore High School. The embankment was strewn with debris from the houses across the road that had been severely damaged.

In the middle of the debris, I came upon two stakes pounded into the embankment surrounded by yellow police tape. A sheriff's deputy told me that the stakes were at the spots where the bodies of Lee Cook, a 58-year-old chemical engineer, and his wife, 52-year-old Jacqueline Cook, had landed.

The Cooks lived across the street from the high school. The tornado made a direct hit on their home, tore it apart and they went flying across Cornell Road, landing on the embankment. They were dead at the scene.

It is hard to imagine a more horrible way to die.

In the subdivision, I remember seeing several small groups of people – residents of destroyed homes, their relatives and friends – huddled together in prayer circles. They were thanking their God for surviving the storm and praying for the souls of those who didn't.

And, no doubt, hoping for better days to come.

It is what we do in times of catastrophe – whether the enemy is the rising waters of a raging river; the power, the fury and the random destruction caused by an unpredictable tornado; or the potential threat to everyone's lives held in a virus invisible to the naked eye.

We hope and pray for better days to come. And, as sure and certain as the sunrise, those days do come.

tales from the trail
Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.