A group of Portadown teens had an Oz-like experience last week - when they came across a tornado in Kansas.
The 14 teenagers have been in the USA since the end of June as part of the Ulster Project.
Hosted by American families in the city of Hutchinson, the Northern Irish group is made up of teenagers from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds - with the project aiming to foster trust and relationships across different cultures.
After a busy fortnight of activity - varying from working with the elderly to celebrating Independence Day - the teens took a walk in Dorothy’s shoes when a tornado hit Hutchinson.
“All the teens, counsellors and families were together for a dinner and karaoke evening at one of the project’s organising family’s homes,” project leader Chris McGuire explained. “It was the teens who noticed it first.”
One of the young people on the project, James Blevins, described the moment they spotted the spiral. He said, “We were just winding down at the end of the day when one of the girls ran in and shouted, ‘there’s a tornado!’.
“We all ran outside to see what was happening. The tornado started to grow on a huge scale so we turned on the TV for the news report and it told us that the tornado would approach areas near us. The counsellors rushed us to the basement. It was really crowded down there.”
More than 30 people squeezed into the building’s basement to shelter from the approaching whirlwind - and it wasn’t just a new experience for the Portadown natives.
“Nobody believed us at first and thought it would never touch down but then, five minutes later, sirens were going off and we all went into the basement,” explained 16-year-old Roisin Bown. “I felt pretty scared because most of the Hutchinson kids - never mind the Irish teens - had never seen a tornado before, which was quite worrying!”
Despite the chaotic circumstances, James believes the experience brought the group closer together, and acted as a reminder of the project’s purpose.
“Taking shelter in the basement brought us even closer as a group. We got to socialise even more, with nothing to distract us except fear and excitement. I’d recommend the Ulster Project to anyone - it’s such an amazing month. I have made friends who I will stay in contact with for ever and I do not feel like the whole Protestant - Catholic thing is such a big issue for any of us.”