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In the Grip of the Whirlwind: The Armistice Day Storm of 1940

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  • Posted September 18, 2009

    "Grip" Presents Gripping Tale

    It wasn't the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which leveled a great city, or Hurricane Katrina, which nearly destroyed New Orleans. In its own way, though, the Armistice Day Storm delivered an equal measure of terror to the upper Midwest in 1940.

    Almost forgotten today, the storm that brought death and destruction from Minnesota to Michigan is given its due by Tom Powers in "In the Grip of the Whirlwind" (Thunder Bay Press, $14.95), a masterful recounting of the calamity that took 154 lives.

    Powers, whose previous books explored Michigan history and natural attractions, gives the first complete report of the surprise storm of Nov. 11, 1940, that doomed freighters, other ships on Lake Michigan and dozens of hunters ill-prepared for an unseasonal blast of wintry hell that plunged temperatures by 40 degrees or more on the 22nd anniversary of the end of World War I.

    As "Whirlwind" opens, the region was enjoying a prolonged Indian Summer in the autumn of 1940, as temperatures soared well above normal. Powers reports that the pre-dawn readings were in the low 50s Fahrenheit even in the upper Midwest. By the dawn of Nov. 12, the temperatures were well below freezing, and scores of people were dead.

    The deadly storm, which initially swept in from the West Coast and zoomed north, brought gale- and hurricane-force winds to an unsupecting Midwest, which received no warnings of the danger ahead. Caught unprepared on the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Michigan, were the ungainly freighters carrying ore and other cargo.

    Mayhem ensued on the waters, as the craft were helplessly buffeted by high winds (a weather station in northern Michigan reported a gust of 126 mph), then rain, sleet, snow and ice.

    On land, meanwhile, duck hunters in shirt sleeves perished by the dozens, and travelers found themselves in grave situations as roads soon were blocked by ice and snow. Powers tells of one isolated farmhouse that played host to 200 stranded travelers; he speculates how the house looked after the weather cleared and the emergency shelter emptied.

    In colorful, lively prose, Powers gives a day-by-day narrative of efforts to save the lives of those trapped by nature's fury. He tells of miracles and tragedies, plus acts of heroism that rescued people who otherwise would have died.

    "In the Grip of the Whirlwind" definitely belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in the history of the Midwest or buffs of disasters on the Great Lakes. It's a shame it took 69 years to tell this tale of death and redemption, but I'm glad such a book was published.

    Gene Mierzejewski was the Books Editor of The Flint (Mich.) Journal from 1987 to 2007.

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