Sunday, April 11, 1999

Mother Nature's worst brings out the best in human nature




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Twenty-five years ago — almost to the day — I was standing at a window in the old Cincinnati Post building on Broadway, watching the storm come in.

        Like a fool.

        It just didn't look that dangerous from 16 floors up and a few miles away. The sirens were shrieking, and in the gray light, we could see it coming toward us. All I remember is the perfect funnel cloud, with moving edges of doors and shingles and lawn furniture.

        April 3, 1974, the twister ripped through Sayler Park, hopped over Covedale and bullied its ugly way toward Xenia. Reporters and photographers jumped into cars and headed for the damage. My job was to help piece together their stories and photos.

Roads clogged
        On Friday, the sirens sounded again, and I was one of the people in a car, trying to see what had happened. The roads were clogged with commuters trying to find a way to work. Some, temporarily furloughed by power outages, were trying to find a way home.

        The ARTIMIS sign on I-71 north gave the first useful piece of information I've seen there. “West Pfeiffer closed. No access to disaster area.”

        So maybe, I think, if I drive up Montgomery Road, I can get close. Trapped behind a Ford van with a Tasmanian Devil decal on the back, I creep through Montgomery's commercial district. The clock in front of Montgomery Inn is stopped at 5:15.

        I am getting nowhere. The van makes a U-turn, and I am emboldened to do the same, heading back toward Blue Ash. Down Pfeiffer Road, I can hear the buzz of saws.

        Rob Miller, who owns the Blue Ash Shell station at the corner of Kenwood and Pfeiffer roads, says he got a call about 5:20 Friday morning from his night manager, Betty Hicks. “She said the power was out and she thought we'd been hit by a tornado.”

        Minutes later, he got a call saying his sister's home near Harper's Point had been hit.

        “Man, I live just down the road in Deer Park,” he said, “and I looked out my window and couldn't see a thing. Not even a broken tree branch or a tipped-over garbage can.” His station is on the very edge of the damage.

        “For me,” he says, “it was cosmetic. I lost a sign. I called the insurance company because that's what you're supposed to do, but I told them to put me at the bottom of the list. A lot of people are worse off.”

        Mike Davis of the Blue Ash police department is directing traffic at the corner. “You wanna meet somebody who has been working his tail off?” he says. “There's a guy here from CG&E who was here within two hours and hasn't stopped.”

Disaster relief
        Ron Stewart, 32 years with the utility company, is helping untangle the mess along Pfeiffer. He's one of the workers responsible for turning the lights back on for the nearly 200,000 people who lost power.

        He stands in front of a grievously twisted and broken dogwood tree. Its blossoms are strewn over the lawn. A 15-foot fir tree is on its side, a muddy scab where it once held the earth. Ron and his men fear they have seen a spark. They run toward, not away, from it.

        I am thinking they are brave. And probably tired and hungry. I am thinking that when you look at disaster from ground level, this is what you see. You see a police officer directing traffic who thinks that a guy in a white hard hat should be patted on the back. You see a man whose business has been battered who will give his place in line to somebody else.

        And what I know — I know — we will see in the next days and weeks are people who will gather up clothes and food and money for their neighbors who have been hurt by this storm.

        That much has not changed in 25 years.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

PULFER ARCHIVE