A Day That Will Live in Utah Infamy: Local Media Coverage of Salt Lake City’s Destructive Tornado

by JAMES G. LOWE

August 11, 1999, was a significantly unique day in Utah history. It is on very rare occasions that events occur that have never before transpired in a state’s history. It is rarer still, that professionals of journalism are required to report on events that they never thought possible. On that fateful day, both of these rarities occurred in Salt Lake City. Shortly before 1 p.m., swollen, purple storm clouds billowed over the city’s skyscrapers, foretelling of the event to come. Soon after, the first tornado to ever be seen in downtown Salt Lake struck, creating a journalistic environment never before seen in Utah.

The twister, an F-2 on the Fujita Scale of tornado severity, initially touched down just southwest of central downtown. Over a period of ten minutes, it blew through the city’s business district, heading north towards the state capitol. Significant damage occurred, resulting in gas leaks, power outages, interrupted phone service, and roofs being blown off of multiple business buildings and homes. (Janofsky) Extensive damage was done to the Delta Center now Energy Solutions Arena, the home of the Utah Jazz. Five hundred trees were destroyed, and another 300 trees were extensively damaged. Significant losses were felt in the residential district known as the Avenues, with over 300 houses being damaged, and thirty homes being deemed uninhabitable by the responding emergency officials. (Brough)

The most poignant loss came in the form of human casualties. One man, Allen Crandy of Las Vegas, was killed and more than 100 people were injured — with fifteen to twenty serious injuries reported. Crandy’s death marked the first ever recorded tornado-caused fatality in state history. An annual trade show known as “Outdoor Retailers” was occurring the day of the disaster, coincidentally taking place directly in the path of the tornado. The sole loss of life and multiple accounts of injury occurred at the convention. (“Tornado Hits”)

Immediately following the tornado, the atmosphere in Salt Lake City was distinctive. The city had felt a kind of devastation that it had no previous experience with and thus had no understanding of how to accurately cope. According to an article published the following day by The New York Times, Utah had experienced 32 tornados in 25 years leading up to this incident. Comparatively, in the same time period, Oklahoma had experienced 1,326. Despite this unfamiliarity, Salt Lake City’s responses to the disaster were tremendously effective. Both in providing immediate aid to the afflicted, as well as journalistically, Salt Lake responded professionally and practiced excellent damage control. (Wharton)

As it relates specifically to the journalistic efforts of the city, three major trends can be seen in the coverage of the catastrophe. News coverage, particularly print media, employed breaking news stories, personal accounts from members of the community, and editorials to accurately capture the history of the event, and to help the healing process of the public. Drawing on the works of both The Salt Lake Tribune and The Deseret News, and utilizing a weeklong time frame following the incident, this pattern can be visualized. 

In the seven days following the destruction caused by the tornado, both of Salt Lake’s local newspapers ran numerous articles responding the disaster. In the immediate aftermath, from approximately August 11 to August 12, both publications ran articles of the breaking news variety.  Summaries of the damage that had been done, as well as strong focuses on the human casualties, covered the front pages of both publications.

“The twister hit hard and fast, tearing apart buildings, shutting down power and scattering debris for miles,” The Deseret News reported in an article printed the following day. In the same story, the paper displayed the scope of the incident by quoting President Clinton. “The burden of recovery will be heavy, but it is a burden that the people of Salt Lake City need not carry alone. As they begin the difficult process of mourning, healing and rebuilding, our nation stands steadfastly behind them,” he said. (Bryson, et al.) The article ran with an accompanying photo of the tornado, providing the reader with not only with a vivid description of the damage caused, but also with a culprit.

The Salt Lake Tribune echoed that style in its immediate coverage. They noted that the state estimated the tornado caused $150 million in damage, and spoke in specific detail of its destruction. One article reported, “Insurers in Utah so far have received 700 claims totaling $7 million for tornado damage under individual homeowner and automobile policies.” (Mitchell)

As the days following the tornado passed, the media evolution continued.  There was a remarkable softening of content, as the focus observably shifted from reports on the extent of the destruction to profiles of individuals who were affected by its consequences. The Avenues, the residential area that absorbed the most significant damaged, received strong coverage by The Deseret News. In an article published two days after the tornado, the experiences of multiple individuals were discussed at length, specifically of the family of Grace Wilson. “They heard a ferocious wind, then looked out a window of their 16th Avenue home and saw lightning,” noted reporter Donna Kemp. “A nearby power line exploded, so (the family) cowered near the couch. They watched in horror as a tree crashed through their living room. And then the ceiling turned to sky.” Despite recounting the damage incurred to the Wilson’s home, the article had a quality of hope and comfort. It stated that once the family was safe in the basement, they turned to their faith to provide comfort, huddling together and praying until the storm passed. (Kemp)

The same story also profiled LaWanna Chilelli, also an Avenues resident: “‘Oh, my God,’” Chilelli cried when she walked in her front door at 4 p.m. Wednesday. A whirling funnel cloud had ripped off the little house’s roof.” Again, after recounting the horror felt by the individual, the focus was brought back to a tone of hope. “I was going to take a vacation day  — I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad I wasn’t home. It’s a mess. But it’s just stuff. It’s just stuff, and I’ve got to remember that,” the article quoted Chilelli as saying.

The next day, August 13, The Deseret News ran a second Avenues article, enhancing their previous writing. The headline, “Humor, hope resonate in Avenues. Firewood jokes and unbroken china help the residents cope,” elucidated their goal and the direction of their evolving incident coverage.  Turning away from shock and awe tactics, the story was solely concerned with providing a face for the tragedy. “We’re going to rebuild bigger and better … with all sorts of goodies,” the article quoted an Avenues resident as saying. “I feel really lucky that (we’re) OK and that our cat came back.” (Kemp and Toomer-Cook)

The Salt Lake Tribune responded accordingly. In an article published on August 16, the Tribune looked to accomplish the same goal as The Deseret News, but utilized the American Red Cross as their vehicle of expression. More than 200 Red Cross volunteers had served some 20,000 meals and answered 300 of some 400 inquiries from family members trying to locate loved ones, the article said, drawing on the statistics as a symbol of compassion. “‘We have had more offers for help than we can handle,’ said Bob Dingman, a mental health counselor in the Red Cross.” The piece also focused on the rebuilding of the community environment, providing information regarding uprooted tree transplantation and readers with information on how to best help. (Ure)

The final installment of news coverage crafted for this scenario came in the form of columns, letters to the editor, and editorials. Both publications utilized this form of journalism to publish content that was not only personal, but personal in voice as well. The Salt Lake Tribune took this format especially to heart. An associate editor of the paper wrote a column on August 15 recounting the actions of the Tribune’s journalists: “What we provided was an all-encompassing, in-depth view of who, what, when, where, how and why,” he wrote. “We told stories about people directly involved, furnished information from the so-called experts, showed the damage through photographs …. I am proud of what was produced in The Tribune …. We tried our hardest to cover every angle. I believe we succeeded.” (McCarthey)

The Tribune continued this model as they published multiple articles submitted by readers, recounting in the first person their views on the incident. Also printed on August 15 was a piece submitted by Laurie J. Wilson, the department of communications chairwoman at BYU. “Some would call it an ‘ill wind’; I would label it fortunate,” she wrote. “It blew in compassion … service … gratitude. Here’s to the community that has been Salt Lake for the past few days. May it not take natural disaster to create it ever again.” (Wilson)

The devastating tornado that hit Salt Lake City on August 11, 1999, brought an atmosphere to the city that had never been seen before. With it came a journalistic responsibility that had never been experienced, yet was handled professionally and thoroughly. As can be seen through the writings of The Salt Lake Tribune and The Deseret News, this incident was covered in the form of breaking news, human interest pieces, and letters to the editor/editorials.

James Lowe is a senior in the College of Humanities at The University of Utah. He is a journalist for the Daily Utah Chronicle, and works as an intern for Simmons Media Group. He enjoys being active outdoors and spending time with his loved ones.

Sources

Amy Joi Bryson, Jennifer Dobner, and Lucinda Dillon, “Twister’s terrible toll 1 killed, 81 injured, 300 homes damaged,” The Deseret News, August 12, 1999.

Michael Janofsky, “Tornado Damages Downtown Salt Lake City; 1 Is Killed and Many Are Hurt,” The New York Times, August 12, 1999.

Donna M. Kemp, “Avenues residents pick up the pieces,” The Deseret News, August 12, 1999.

Tom McCarthey, “Letter From The Editor,” The Salt Lake Tribune, August 15, 1999.

Lesley Mitchell, “Tornado Claims Total $7M,” The Salt Lake Tribune, August 20, 1999.

Jennifer Toomer-Cook and Donna Kemp, “Humor, hope resonate in Avenues. Firewook Jokes and unbroken china help the residents cope,” The Deseret News, August 13, 1999.

Jon Ure, “Red Cross Workers Relieved Victims Are Few,” The Salt Lake Tribune, August 16, 1999.

Tom Wharton, The Salt Lake Tribune, August 9, 2009.

Laurie J. Wilson, “Twister Blew In Compassion and Service,” The Salt Lake Tribune, August 15, 1999.

Clayton Brough, et al. “Utah’s Tornadoes and Waterspouts, 1847-Present.” National Weather Service Salt Lake City.

Tornado Hits Salt Lake City.” University of Nebraska-Lincoln High Plains Climate Center.

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