Towns in Pa., Ohio reflect on tornado anniversary

By Michael Rubinkam

Associated Press

Published: Monday, May 30 2011 12:50 p.m. MDT

In this June 4, 1985 file photo, Vice-President George H. Bush visits Wheatland, Pa., after tornado damage which occurred on May 31, 1985. If there's a lesson to be learned in Wheatland and other towns devastated by natural disaster, it's that communities are resilient. And that rebuilding, however slow, fitful, frustrating and expensive, will probably take place, though what emerges will not necessarily be a carbon copy of what was there before. (AP Photo, File)

The Associated Press

WHEATLAND, Pa. — As they dig out, tornado victims in the South and Midwest might find it hard to see past the wreckage of their communities to a future in which homes and businesses are rebuilt, trees are once again standing tall and proud, and life is back to normal.

Maxine "Sis" Cluse knows how they feel. She lost everything she owned exactly 26 years ago, when the deadliest U.S. tornado outbreak between 1974 and this catastrophic season nearly flattened her hometown of Wheatland.

Her simple advice to tornado victims: "You can't give up."

Today, a visitor would be hard-pressed to detect any physical sign of the twister that wrecked Wheatland on May 31, 1985. The same goes for Niles, a town just over the state line in Ohio that was changed forever by the same tornado.

If there's a lesson to be learned in Niles, Wheatland and other towns devastated by long-ago disaster, it's that communities are resilient. And that rebuilding, however slow, fitful, frustrating and expensive, will probably take place, though what emerges will not necessarily be a carbon copy of what was there before.

The calamity that devastated Niles and Wheatland and has become an important part of both cities' lore. More than a generation removed from a tornado outbreak in three states and Canada that killed about 90 people, storm survivors still talk about what it was like — and some still get nervous when the forecast calls for severe weather.

The monster funnel, classified as an F5 on the Fujita tornado intensity scale, wrecked three miles of Niles before slamming into Wheatland as the strongest twister in Pennsylvania's recorded history.

Though they fell victim to the same tornado, the towns took different paths to recovery.

In Wheatland, the super-storm killed eight residents, leveled most of the town's industrial base and left 400 people homeless in the rough-and-tumble Flats section near the Shenango River.

Wheatland rebuilt, but it wasn't the same. Modern zoning precluded the kind of industrial-residential mix that had emerged gradually over many decades in the Flats, and the town council voted to turn the entire neighborhood into a 60-acre industrial park. A promotional brochure from the era boasted: "Wheatland: The Town a Tornado Couldn't Beat!"

The new industrial park welcomed several specialty steel companies, a trucking firm, a storage business, a machine shop and a manufacturer of cylinder caps.

Yet most of the displaced residents never came back to Wheatland, and couldn't even if they wanted to because of a lack of housing and room to build. By 1990, the town's population had plummeted by hundreds of residents to 760.

"Wheatland has changed a lot. We lost half of our residents. But we're still a close-knit community," said Sharon Stinedurf, the town's secretary.

A small memorial in the industrial park marks the devastating path of the tornado. Flowers are laid there each anniversary.

About 15 miles to the west in Niles, the tornado killed nine people, destroyed 100 homes and businesses, and damaged 250 more. The economic loss totaled more than $60 million.

Tom Telego, the city's business manager and director of emergency management, said it took the city five years to fully recover. Population loss, now at 19,000, was minimal. Most businesses rebuilt; the ones that didn't were replaced by other businesses.

He said the rebuilding effort was helped by a sense of shared purpose.

"It gives you a commonality that allows you to bond together and overcome it," said Telego, who was a Red Cross volunteer in 1985.

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