For me, that Wednesday began with a 5:20 wake-up call from Dad. Unexpected, but not surprising.
"You need to watch this weather. They say it's gonna get bad today."
It was only ten minutes until I'd normally get up, so I turned on the TV and saw there were already warnings out west of us. Five minutes later while I was in the shower, my phone rang again. Turned out to be my sister. I had asked her the night before to call if her weather radio went off during the night.
The warnings started before 6 AM and were virtually continuous for the next fifteen-plus hours. My sister, who had a storm shelter installed a few years ago after a tornado passed within two miles of their house, was calling throughout the day asking if it was safe to come out. Her power was out and her weather radio had stopped working. Every time, the answer was either "no" or "maybe for a few minutes, but there's another storm coming."
I left work about 3 that afternoon, came home and continued to watch the weather. I guess it was around 4 that my power went out, which seemed a bit odd as it wasn't real stormy here at that time, just extremely windy. Later I would learn that TVA, which supplies electricity to most of north Alabama, had suffered severe damage to their main transmission lines and power wouldn't be restored for days.
After about fifteen minutes with no power and knowing the storms had been coming one right after another, I decided to go back to work. At least there we had a generator and could watch UHF channels. I stayed at work for the better part of the rest of the night, except for one foolhardy period when I decided to drive around to look for signs of storm damage.
Driving home that night was eerie, with no traffic lights, no store lights, and only the dim glow of candlelight coming from a few homes. I lit a few candles, found a couple of flashlights, and made a sandwich. The power was out, internet was down, and my cell service had been out since early afternoon, so I decided to go to bed. I'd heard reports of tornadoes on the ground, homes damaged, but had no idea of the kind of devastation and loss of life I would hear about and see over the coming days.
The stories came in first -- stories of the damage, loss of life, and heroism. Stories like a grandmother who laid on top of a baby to protect it. The baby survived while the grandmother lost her life. Then came the numbers, the fatalities. They started high and they climbed hour by hour. Then the pictures and the video began to come in -- footage as bad as anything I've ever seen and yet once you see the damage in person you realize the pictures can't begin to do it justice.
I drove to Dad's one evening -- I think Friday or Saturday, the days run together -- to help him set up a generator. I'm pretty sure he didn't need any help, but just wanted to see me. On my way there, I got my first look at some of the damage. When I got to Dad's, he showed me all the debris that had fallen in their front yard. Among it was a pair of kids blue jeans, size 4, and an 8x10 photograph of a little girl. They had no idea who she was. I could only hope she had survived.
An EF5 tornado -- the highest-rating given, for storms with winds over 200 mph -- passed within 3-4 miles of Dad's house, and within a mile of where Wolfgang lives. Minutes later, the same tornado destroyed my first cousin's house. She and her husband hid in a closet. All that remains of their house is that closet and part of one wall. They survived. Hundreds across Alabama didn't.
That particular tornado stayed on the ground continuously for over 100 miles. I drove through some more of the damage on my way to church Sunday. My eyes started to water. Every image, every location, breaks your heart all over again. The destruction is so massive that eventually words fail.
Another somewhat unique aspect to this disaster was the widespread and lengthy power outage. At one point, we heard over 600,000 were without power. Obviously, that is secondary to the tornado destruction, but still significant in that it no doubt prevented some people from being forewarned. The local TV stations were doing a great job covering things, but probably over 90 percent of north Alabamians weren't able to watch TV.
TVA was originally giving estimates that power could be out five to seven days. Some areas were on sooner. Some still don't have power today, eight days later.
People were unprepared for an extended power outage. Most lost everything in their fridge and freezer. Gasoline became a premium commodity. The few stations that had generators and were able to pump it had lines half an hour to an hour long the first day or two.
I had no cell phone service, no internet, and no home phone service for a couple of days, as both my landline phones are cordless and therefore need electricity. I am beyond embarrassed to admit that it crossed my mind Thursday to maybe go and stay overnight with friends in Nashville on Friday, just so I would be able to use my cell phone and text and call people back who had tried to check on me. It feels incredibly selfish now that the thought even crossed my mind.
Because as I began to see the damage and the relief efforts that were underway, I quickly realized this was not the time to skip town, this was the time to help your neighbor. I managed to find an old corded phone at work which I borrowed, just so I wouldn't feel completely disconnected from the outside world.
At work, management decided we would work through the weekend due to the situation. I had thought of griping for half a second, but in hindsight I'm so glad we did. It felt like people needed us there. Our generator began to run low on gas on Thursday or Friday -- again I forget the day. A frantic search for fuel paid off. We remained on generator power until sometime yesterday.
The relief effort has been amazing. It has risen to match and begun to overcome the devastation. There were reports of some areas even turning away volunteers or having no more room to store the supplies that had been donated. The outpouring of love and people's faith in the face of death and total loss has been incredible.
It makes me proud to be from this area and to call Alabama home. And hearing stories about people from all over the country showing up to help give me hope and make me proud of America. Race, religion, politics -- none of that mattered. People simply helped. And they continue helping. As I've witnessed this tragedy bring out the best in so many, it makes me wonder why we can't treat each other this way all the time.
Something else I've observed: Events like this divide people into basically two categories. There are those who help, as instinctively and as automatically as they breathe. It's as if there isn't even a choice. It's just what they do. And then there are those who seem completely oblivious to everything going on around them, whose only concern seems to be themselves, and everyone else can go screw themselves. And you don't have to ask which category someone falls into. You don't have to dig very hard at all. Just observe, and it becomes quite obvious.
I'm proud to say almost everyone I know was doing something to help. My sister and her husband went to try and help my first cousin. Dad, who was still without power at the time, called two different days saying they were getting supplies to take to volunteers and victims. Axl went out with search and rescue teams. Even LJ went out at least three days that I know of to help in the clean-up effort.
Several other things struck me during all this. Forgive me for jumping around here but I just want to get all my thoughts down.
People in one area that was devastated often had no idea there was just as much devastation in countless other areas, in some cases for days due in large part to the power outage. I realized this talking to Axl one night. He had been out with search and rescue but still had no power or internet and was stunned as I told him of the devastation I'd heard of in other counties and areas.
It also struck me during this time that you, people outside of Alabama, probably had a lot better idea of what was going on than most anyone here. Again because of the lack of power and communications.
And finally, having watched Japan, and Katrina, and numerous other disasters play out on TV, I have realized something I really knew deep down but just chose to forget or ignore most times. Just because a few days pass and the national media moves on to something else and suddenly you've become day-before-yesterday's news doesn't mean the disaster is over or things are normal.
Things won't be normal for months and months. And when they finally are, normal will be different from whatever it was before. We will never forget the images, the stories, the victims, the loss, the damage. Nor will we forget the heroes, the survivors, the rescuers, the volunteers, the love and the kindness. And if we ever think we might, we will drive past a place where a store or a school or a neighborhood used to be, or maybe a spot where the trees suddenly aren't quite as tall or dense as they are just down the road. And we will remember.
I write all this realizing I am incredibly blessed. Not only am I alive and well, but so are my family and loved ones. I suffered absolutely zero property damage. My town was one of the most very fortunate. Time and again Wednesday and Wednesday night, tornadoes would track a few miles north or a few miles south of us. And we were one of the first areas to get power restored. So yes, I feel blessed. And guilty. Why them? Why not me? I know that feeling well.
The tornado outbreak of 1974 had always been the stuff of legend around here. Someone wrote a book about it and I remember looking through it a few times and reading some of it. There were personal accounts of survivors and stories and sometimes pictures of those who died. I still remember this one family -- a man, his wife, and their kids -- who were all killed in the '74 tornadoes. I can still remember their first and last names. I can still see that picture. And I haven't looked at that book in at least twenty years.
When I asked Dad if he thought this was worse than '74, he didn't hesitate to say yes. The numbers -- of injuries, damage, and loss of life -- say it isn't even that close. At least in Alabama. The last I saw there were around 250 killed in the state and over 3000 injured. That's roughly triple the 1974 numbers of 86 fatalities and 949 injuries.
I grew up with what probably was an unhealthy fear of tornadoes. I hated the word, hated to see it in print, hated to hear anyone say it. Anytime there was a tornado warning for our county, Dad would make us get out and drive around, or sit under an overpass or go to the courthouse basement. As I got older, I started staying home when my family would get out. And after I moved out, the fear gradually dissipated and I'm sure I became too lax when it came to storms.
Today, I have a new-found respect, for a word and a monster I still hate.
"My home's in Alabama, no matter where I lay my head. My home's in Alabama, southern born and southern bred..."
Labels: 2011 tornado outbreak, dad, LJ, sister, tornadoes, weather, wolfgang