The temperature was 68 degrees outside, but it seemed hotter in the office. lt was three o'clock on a Friday afternoon. Tomorrow would bring a day off, but it was raining. lt always rained on a weekend when you had something planned. Suddenly a cool April breeze came through an open window. I looked up gratefully but frowned as I saw ominous clouds forming toward the south. The radio sputtered an occasional warning about possible thunderstorms and damaging hail.
I wished my secretary would turn the thing off.
"We interrupt this program; a tornado has struck Greenwood, Arkansas." A cold chill swept over my body. My sister lived in Greenwood, sixteen miles to the south. 'All available ambulances, station wagons, and wreckers are asked to report to Greenwood..." i whispered a prayer, then tried to collect my thoughts.
I called my wife at the hospital where she was employed. We met at home and headed for Greenwood.
The traffic was unbelievably heavy. The rain was pelting down.
I fought the continuous stream of traffic and had difficulty turning onto the main highway. Flashing red lights approached from the south. Ambulances were returning with sirens wailing. We turned off on a side road to avoid a traffic jam of more than a mile on the highway ahead.
The radio crackled, "two known dead; four known dead; then fourteen known dead and scores injured." We entered Greenwood by the back road. Debris was everywhere. Tangled masses of trees, houses, automobiles and furniture. We picked our way around the hot wires on the ground. We should be able to see the courthouse. There was no court house! The town square of the proud little town was completely gone...vanished!
We found my sister, unharmed, although her home which had been located fifty yards from the court house was completely destroyed. lt appeared that little, if anything, was salvageable. We returned to what was left of the town square to help where we could.
Little more than an hour had passed since the tornado had touched down, yet there was a world of activity amid the strange silence of the occasion. People were everywhere. Many of them displaying cuts, bruises, and makeshift bandages; but all of them busy. Already, bulldozers were working clearing the wreckage. Volunteer rescue crews were everywhere.
By nightfall auxiliary power units were on hand to aid the powerless city. Amateur radio operators were available to provide needed communications. National Guard units, county sheriff's deputies, state troopers, and regular army units were guarding the remains of businesses; but there was no evidence of any attempted looting.
It was amazing! lt seemed that every citizen and every incoming volunteer was working, and cooperating together as if some invisible foreman had taken charge.
Never had I seen anything like this cooperative effort to relieve the suffering, to shelter the homeless. Undamaged parts of the high school buildings were used to shelter those whose homes were blown away. The school cafeteria began serving meals to the hundreds. Donations of food and clothing came in from the surrounding area and from great distances.
The auxiliary power units filled the night with both light and diesel fumes. The lights cast ghostly shadows on the remains of the businesses and the court house. Chain saws ripped the night as they bit through giant trees strewn helter skelter about the town.
The radio continued to give a roll call of the dead and injured. Familiar names. Old people, young people, and...children! Our emotions were a mixture of sadness over the loss of friends and of joy over the fact that our family was intact. Many houses were destroyed, but many homes were knitted closer together.
Daybreak revealed many tired and weary men. The sun was shining, but the day looked bleak. Heavy equipment was everywhere. There was the grinding of blades and shovels, the hum of the power units, and the creaking of track-laying vehicles. There were men, hundreds of men, and each of them working. For what? For money? NO! Volunteers... every one of them.
There were two men from Memphis, three hundred miles away, with chainsaws. There was a contractor with his power unit from wilburton, Oklahoma, the town that was virtually destroyed a few years earlier by a tornado. A Fort Smith gasoline distributor was dispensing gasoline without charge. A tire company was repairing the many, many flats.
The smell of bacon penetrated the odor of diesel. lt came from an army field kitchen where weary men sat in small groups as they forced down bites of breakfast. Some were gathered around a Salvation Army truck drinking coffee. Others were still laboring. Now and again you saw a warm handshake between grown men with tear-filled eyes. "How's your family?"
"Did your aunt get out okay?" "Do you plan to rebuild?' I don't know Greenwood is gone. lt wouldn't
be the same."
Leaders automatically emerged from among each group. "swing the boom over there!" "Watch that other machine!" 'Tie on to that stump!" "All together now...pull!,, No one questioned, they just worked, and worked, and worked.
The volunteers gave of their time, their talents, and their prayers, and disappeared. Who could we thank for all this? Who was in charge of the overall operation?
Many years have passed. The neat little park, the new courthouse, they many new homes And businesses serve as monuments to a proud people whose roots grow deeper than those of the ancient tees which were uprooted by the tornado.
A town which in many ways may have suffered a degree of provincialism has blossomed into a community which has a pleasant mixture of tradition and innovation and civic pride. Greenwood, Arkansas, a town that couldn't die. But we no longer ask who was in charge, for we know.
"Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning..."
(Job 38:1, 42:12)