The F-5

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By: Barbara Mandry

Howling winds, horizontal hail, heavy rain, and a husband with genuine fear in his eyes startled me at the front door of our tiny upstairs apartment. We were both already irritated because the power had just literally left us in the dark right before the dramatic conclusion of a suspenseful television program. It was about 9:45 p.m. on Monday, May 11, 1970, and we were definitely aware of a strong thunderstorm raging outside. 

Tom had just rushed to move our only significant material possession, a 1969 Chevelle Malibu, to cover under Robbie’s Dorm parking garage across the street. It was when he returned and burst through our front door at Modernaire Apartments on 10th and University, that the terrifying look on his face told me that this was no ordinary storm. “Tornado, maybe?” The thought momentarily flickered into my mind. Of course, the only thing I knew about tornados was what I had seen in the movies or on The Wizard of Oz. I knew no one who had ever been in a tornado, seen a tornado, or knew anything about tornado safety. I was a 19-year-old newlywed and a new resident of Lubbock (Texas).

Immediately, Tom shouted, “It’s a tornado! Quick, open the windows!” Back then it was a commonly held belief that opening windows during a tornado would help reduce the inside pressure. In hyper-adrenaline over-drive, Tom raced directly to our bedroom and began pulling our big king-size mattress off the bed, twisting, pulling, and wrangling it through the narrow bedroom door and around the corners into our tiny kitchen. While opening the bedroom window, I suddenly screamed in disbelief at the sight of a huge heating/ac unit teetering on the second-story roof of the neighboring College Avenue Baptist Church building. It was the size of a small Volkswagen and looked like it was about to crash right into our bedroom wall. Any doubt about what we were experiencing now was gone. This was a real tornado. And we weren’t in Kansas, Dorothy!

The deafening roar of the destructive winds pierced our ears as they slammed our interior apartment doors open and closed continually. In fear for our lives, we scrambled to take cover under our mattress shelter. Our kitchen was so small that the mattress would not lie flat over us. But my brave husband of 87 days held tight to me and the corners of our foam covering, refusing to allow me to grab the avocado-colored wall phone hanging just over our heads. “I want to call my Daddy and tell him goodbye,” I pleaded. Tom pretended not to hear me and just kept me close and covered. We both thought we might die there. Crying, praying, uttering silly end-of-life statements, we waited for the worst to pass. And it did.

In the eerie calm immediately after the storm, Tom and I cautiously emerged from our kitchen shelter. Opening our apartment door, we caught our first glimpse of the aftermath. Outside walls still standing were pocked and covered with debris. The other two-thirds of our second-story apartment complex were flattened…smashed by the force of a powerful tornado “hammer.” A collapsed roof and splintered boards were everywhere. As we made our way carefully down the damaged stairs, through storm debris, to our manager’s apartment, we heard other survivors. We crowded together inside Mrs. Salisbury’s apartment and listened in shock and disbelief to KFYO’s radio broadcast of the unbelievable tornado events. We felt so thankful to have survived. 

It’s hard for us to believe that 52 years ago, our city was hit by an F-5 tornado. It seems like yesterday. Twenty-six (26) Lubbock residents lost their lives; another 2000+ residents were injured; 8,800 family resident units, including 450 apartments were damaged or destroyed, leaving hundreds homeless.

When we share our memories of May 11th, we are reminded of survival…of the “Volkswagen” a/c unit that did not crush our apartment…of the tall strong church building that provided protection for our vulnerable upstairs apartment. We tell about the unforgettable sights we saw and how my husband worked long grueling hours as an electrician to help rebuild our city. We tell them the restoration stories built upon mountains of tornado debris. And we remind them of how precious life is especially in the midst of the storms. Remembering how GOD turned destruction into beauty, still encourages us and others. It is good to remember.