TORNADOES AND NEIGHBORS


Plentywood, MT experienced a direct hit from two massive storm systems in the space of only 90 minutes the evening of July 9th.  The first storm caused a macroburst, with wind speeds of 118 miles per hour ripping apart the airport, destroying 10 planes and demolishing 8 hangers. Countless heavy tree limbs—and whole trees—fell all over town, crushing cars, damaging houses, and instantly wiping out power to the entire community. A small tornado touched down on the outskirts of town, splintering buildings and crushing trailers like old tin cans. The roof was ripped off the local casino as terrified patrons huddled in the basement, and a mother and her two young daughters survived by sheltering under their pickup while their trailer home was swept away by the twister.­

The next storm arrived just as people were beginning moving around to assess the damage of the first storm. Hail the size of golf balls broke car windows and sent people rushing to find shelter again.

Through it all, not one person was seriously injured, though the community suffered significant property damage.

The disaster response was immediate and overwhelming. Ordinary citizens and officials alike stepped up to help wherever there was need. The sheriff’s department did welfare checks throughout the night, making sure vulnerable residents were ok. The local phone company sent a crew in the morning to cook burgers donated by the grocery store in Scobey. When they ran out of burgers, the local Dairy Queen donated more. Insurance agents gave out their private phone numbers and the hardware store opened in the dark so residents could get needed supplies. Power remained out throughout the day, but the pharmacy filled emergency prescriptions, while residents were allowed in the local grocery to shop by flashlight. “Just write down the prices and bring them to the front,” they were told.

An oil crew arrived from across the state line, working all day in the heat to help residents clear fallen trees. They brought heavy equipment and much-needed manpower, but they also brought a truckload of burgers, sub sandwiches, and water for anyone that needed it. The civic center ran generators to provide kitchen facilities, phone charging stations, and air conditioning, and the local bus service provided free transportation.  There were no strangers in Plentywood, only friends

Sure, people could have said it’s your own fault for building such flimsy buildings….You should have expected a tornado to come and been better prepared….If you didn’t want tornado damage, why did you decide to live in Eastern Montana, anyway?...You should have invested in a generator when you had the chance….Don’t talk about fallen trees—you chose to have trees in the first place, so they’re your problem….If we help you this time, you’ll expect help EVERY time there’s a tornado!

They could have said things like this, but they didn’t. Everyone understood that the same thing could happen anywhere, to anyone and they rolled up their sleeves, neighbor helping neighbor. The great need was the only reason necessary to mobilize an entire community. As I write this, the sounds of chain saws are still echoing through the air and I have to wonder, what if we brought some of the same attitude to fighting childhood hunger in Montana? What if we helped hungry kids with the same good-natured spirit and immediate, open-handed response? What if we didn’t stop to measure who deserves what, but ask instead who needs help the most? What if it doesn’t have to take a tornado to show us our best selves? What if we realized that —every day—we have the chance to change someone’s life?

We’re Montana. Let’s get this job done.

Tina Kahrs
Montana No Kid Hungry-PRC AmeriCorps VISTA
Plentywood, MT