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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Making it Through the Storm


Tornadoes can accomplish amazing things.


Personal items have been known to end up more than 125 miles away. Paper straws have been thrust like knives into the sides of trees. A house may be completely destroyed, but leave behind unbroken eggs sitting on the kitchen counter.


The mysteries of tornadic behavior – how one house, for instance, can be annihilated while the one next door remains standing – have been hard to unravel. Meteorologists have likewise struggled to determine cyclonic windspeeds, for the simple reason that anemometers rarely survive the encounter.


During the mid-1800s, however, scientists believed they were finally closing in on an answer.


It all had to do with plucked chickens. 


It’s not uncommon for farmers to report that tornadoes can strip every feather from a live chicken. Would it be possible to determine how strong the wind would have to be in order to make such a thing happen? 


Chickens, predictably, weren’t overly enthusiastic about the experiments necessary to find out. That didn’t stop Professor Elias Loomis, who in 1842 decided to fire a number of poultry (fortunately predeceased) out of a cannon. All of their feathers were blown off. Having determined that the muzzle velocity of each blast was approximately 340 mph, Loomis confidently declared that meteorologists now knew that tornadic winds did not exceed that number.


And that became something akin to scientific gospel for more than a century.


Things began to change, however, with the advent of the wind tunnel (a considerably more scientific way to study chicken feathers) and the arrival of a guy named Vonnegut.


No, not the novelist Kurt.  His brother Bernard, a widely respected meteorologist, wrote a 1975 paper called Chicken Plucking as Measure of Tornado Wind Speed. He expressed his conviction that it would be hard to differentiate the precise effects of a strong blast of air coming out of Loomis’ cannon with, say, the fact that none of the chickens fared particularly well by being blasted out of a cannon.


Who could say if windspeed had anything to do with their defeathering? 


Vonnegut suggested a different explanation for what was happening in barnyards on stormy days. When poultry are unusually stressed – and an approaching tornado would seem to qualify as a source of stress – their feathers become easier to pluck. This physiological response, which is known as “flight-molt,” is apparently a means by which a predator might end up with a mouthful of feathers instead of a fleeing chicken.


The force of a tornado’s winds, in other words, may not be the ultimate factor after all. Feathers come out more easily simply because a chicken has started to feel “chicken.” 


In case you’re wondering, Bernard Vonnegut did not win a Nobel Prize for overturning one of science’s most cherished notions. But he win the Ig Nobel prize (kind of like the Razzies in Hollywood) for actually dedicating a scientific paper to the subject of plucked chickens.


More traditional meteorological research has gradually helped us understand the nature and behavior of tornadoes.


Two groundbreaking advances came in the wake of the Palm Sunday Outbreak of April 11, 1965.    

That afternoon and evening, 47 tornadoes (17 of them categorized as especially violent) roared across five Midwestern states. To date it is the second most intense tornadic outbreak ever recorded. After 11 hours of carnage, 271 people had been killed and another 1,500 injured. Indiana was hit the hardest, tallying 137 fatalities, the most tornado deaths on a single day in state history.  

An airplane that had been sitting on the ground in Elkhart was found 35 miles away in Michigan. A twister that passed near Kokomo was later determined to have been a mile wide at its base, and threw cars over 100 yards.  

Can any good possibly emerge from such disasters?

The Palm Sunday Outbreak, as it turns out, convinced storm scientists that citizens needed greater clarity with regard to communication. They didn't seem to understand the difference between a Forecast and an Alert, and were thus slow to grasp the reality of an approaching super-cell. 

The National Weather Service therefore chose to implement two new terms – Tornado Watch and Tornado Warning. This terminology has remained in effect since 1965.

The Palm Sunday Outbreak also attracted the attention of Dr. Ted Fujita, who developed the tornado intensity scale that bears his name (from F0, mild, to F5, super-violent). Fujita was able to prove that large tornadoes have small, intense mini-funnels ("suction vortices") within the larger cloud. They cause the most damage, and help explain the seemingly sporadic nature of tornadic behavior.  

Scientists are now able to make safety recommendations concerning home construction and advise homeowners where they should hunker down before an approaching twister.

At the end of his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus' longest single block of teaching), he turns to the subject of making it through a storm.

Jesus points out that all of us are building a house. That's not negotiable. Your house is your life. How you build and where you build will make all the difference in the world.

Jesus then declares that a storm is coming. That's also not negotiable. The violence of this storm and the rising floodwaters that follow in its wake will test what you have built.


“These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock.


“But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards” (Matthew 7:24-27, "The Message"). 


This is not a Watch. This is a Warning.   

Storms of all kinds are coming into your life. 

What we know for sure, however, is that if we build our lives on Jesus' words, we will never go through a storm alone.


Our feathers may be ruffled.


But we’ll still be standing when the sun comes out again.

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