The Tornado and Its Aftermath

On Sunday, March 29, 1998, at approximately 5:20 p.m., a series of destructive tornadoes hit the small, rural town of St. Peter, Minnesota (population 9,500). The storm cluster carried winds in excess of 200 miles per hour and cut a 1.25-mile-wide path of destruction through the town.

The tornado took the life of a 6-year-old child who was known to most of the participants in the study. Seventy-five percent of the town's homes were damaged, with 28% completely destroyed or damaged to the point that they were uninhabitable (Murray, 1998). As quoted in our first report of data from the study (Ackil, Van Abbema, & Bauer, 2003), one mother described the scene she observed as she emerged from the basement after the storm:

It just literally looked like a bomb had gone off. . . . I probably walked about a mile and a half through town over power lines, over people's roofs and dressers. I expected to walk over bodies, the streets were so littered you could not get through . . . you were just literally walking across shingles and walls. You couldn't even identify where you were in town because everything looked so completely different. . . . People were just milling around trying to find where their loved ones were, trying to make sure people were okay and stuff. Trying to get to other households to make sure that people had survived. (p. 289)

The effects of the tornado were felt long after the storm had passed. Homes that were not destroyed were without power for more than a week, and in some cases in excess of a month. The nearly 2,100 elementary and secondary school children in the town were out of school for 9 days. Upon their return, children of all ages attended the same school in shifts for the remainder of the academic year. In short, the tornado and resulting destruction had an immediate, pronounced, and prolonged impact on the residents of the town and, thus, the participants in the research summarized in the present chapter.

As we discussed in Ackil et al. (2003), there are other features of the St. Peter tornado that made the experience of it uniquely traumatic and different from the negative and traumatic experiences examined in previous studies of children's memory. First, the storm and its consequences were unexpected, coming as it did on an otherwise sunny Minnesota afternoon in late March. Warning sirens were sounded minutes before the touchdown of the tornado, but families were otherwise unprepared for the event, and they had no time to discuss expectations of it in advance. This contrasts with much of the research on children's memory for negative events in which the events were anticipated. Stressful medical procedures often are scheduled in advance, and children are prepared for them

(e.g., Goodman, Quas, Batterman-Faunce, Riddlesberger, & Kuhn, 1997). Even in the case of emergency room treatment there may be time en route to the hospital or in the waiting room for parents to provide some preparation of their children for what is to come. Medical personnel involved in suturing and casting "walk through" the procedures as they administer treatment (see Peterson & Bell, 1996). This advanced preparation may impact children's immediate interpretation and subsequent representation of the experience (e.g., Goodman et al., 1997). Consistent with this suggestion, in the study of children's memory for Hurricane Andrew, one of the categories that varied as a function of stress was children's recall of storm preparation (Bahrick et al., 1998). The unanticipated nature of the St. Peter tornado meant that children could not benefit from prior preparation by parents and others about the upcoming experience.

Second, unlike many unfamiliar and stressful events, the tornado also prohibited concurrent interpretation by parents. None of the families who participated in the study had any prior personal experience with a destructive tornado. They certainly were not able to predict the storm's outcome. In addition, many mothers reported that as it became clear that the storm was severe and potentially life threatening, they exhibited negative coping behaviors such as crying, hyperventilating, praying for safety, and so forth. Even for mothers who were less obviously emotional, it was difficult if not impossible to engage in conversation. The families were crouched in small spaces (interior bathrooms) and under large pieces of furniture (desks) as the loud winds of the storm raged around them. Such circumstances virtually precluded the kind of conversations that are known to support children's subsequent recall (Haden, Ornstein, Ecker-man, & Didow, 2001; Tessler & Nelson, 1994). In short, the event of the St. Peter, Minnesota, tornado was traumatic, unique, and unanticipated, and it was only after the fact that it could be "processed" by the children and their caregivers.

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