Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Blowin' in the Wind: Part One of the Tornado Story

Well, one F4 and four months later, we are here and giving thanks. To sum up those tense moments before, during, and immediately after the tornado in Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011, I'll transcribe Richard's notes from that evening that he wrote by the light of the Coleman lantern.

The sound of water dripping into the kitchen and den. Blood from my finger as a result of brushing off my chair to sit down, glass everywhere. The floors covered with glass, leaves, small branches. The sound of sirens, constant, unceasing. Chainsaws coping with the trees, down everywhere. People walking around dazed, in shock, not knowing what to say to each other. Are you alright? Do you know anything about the folks in the house on the corner?

Flashing lights,
headlights of emergency vehicles,
but no lights at all from houses or streetlights.
People actually driving around sightseeing, taking pictures of the devastation from their car windows.

Sitting in the cellar laughing and sort of coping with five people in a 6'x6' space listening to the radio, "this is the perfect storm!" Approaching Tuscaloosa from the SW heading for downtown and the University. A path sure to bring it right to us. "It's a half mile wide!" Then the radio goes dead. Our ears popping, the sound of thunder, but sustained, a deep rumbling, vague sound of destruction, God be with us, God have mercy on us, (no atheists in foxholes or in the cellar during a tornado). Then, stillness after the violence. And, Parker, "Hail Mary, full of grace." Parker who comforted his brothers (and mother I might add) during the ordeal.

Finally when we were reasonably confident the storm or this one anyway had passed, I emerged (no better word) from our refuge to a world only vaguely resembling the one we knew before where formerly there were trees and shade and green, now there was a broad horizon, a sense of what it must be like to live on the great plains or in Montana, big sky country.

But, we were unharmed, unscathed, untouched, alive, together, mom's word, "we're together." And, thank God, thank God.
Really, when I think about it I realize we're so traumatized that only when we heard Willie barking, Willie who refused to come to the cellar with us, only when we heard him barking did I finally climb out, finding our neighbor Cherry walking down the street checking on neighbors, slowly did I, and eventually we, come to understand the extent of the damage and great good fortune we enjoyed in being alive.

Most windows in the house blown out, the house full of debris. The roof damaged, the ceiling sagging. glass, debris, photos on the floor But, the awareness on another level that our most valuable possessions were of so little significance. We were alive, we are together, we have one another.

Now outside. All of the trees are down, enormous Oak in the backyard-3-4 feet in diameter, uprooted, Sweet Gum-3 feet, uprooted, Pine- 3 feet, uprooted, Pecan tree 3 feet, uprooted, Redbud uprooted. Shed in the back moved off its foundation and lying on it's back, roof completely gone. Roof of our house with one very large hole and numerous smaller holes. The biggest hole in the house being 5x8 in the den, where the window used to be.

Roll call on neighbors. Everyone accounted for as far as I could walk, trees down across the streets in every direction. But, word of three people in the back corner house which hardly stood at this point.

Back to University Boulevard, cars bumper to bumper in every direction-being routed away from Alberta. I would later understand why. Even pedestrians were prevented walking in that direction.

Assess cars: windows blown out of every car. But right now we can't get out of the neighborhood anyway.

I talk to a cop, someone I recognized from the citizens academy and who reminds me why I have a fondness for cops. I explain that I have a family trapped in the neighborhood and need to get them to someone's house. He offers me his phone and tells me an officer will take them wherever they need to go.
Irene comes out, uses his phone and leaves a message with Johnnie. I walk to Nikki's who invites us to her home since they are relatively intact. Irene packs several bags and we walk toward Nikki's when at the intersection Irene says, "there's Johnnie!" "Like an angel" she says, and we make our way to her car and load everyone in, on the way to power and running water, safe and well in the arms of someone we love. I can't believe how our lives have so suddenly changed.

I stay. I stand around stunned, not sure what to do or which way to turn. The smell of wood-like a sawmill, hardwood and pine. The open horizon. The sirens and lights. People milling around, literally walking in circles, carrying birdcages and puppies and a kitten wrapped in a towel. Are you OK? Yeah. Are you? Any word on the house in the corner? I decide to see what has happened in the neighborhood and tread my way through the downed trees and power lines, laboriously making my way back past Barbara and Mr. B and the Shirleys and the Johnsons, and Darlene's and through the backyard of Darlene's neighbor to Ann Ramos' house, roof, doors, and windows gone, water running freely from broken pipes, Miss Delbridge's.

Now getting dark but I make my way out the far side of the hood and onto University. Now, having bypassed the roadblocks, able to walk East and shocked at the utter devastation. Cars upside down on the road, entire buildings gone, not just damaged. Ambulances lining the streets, police cars, and emergency vehicles of every description. Empty lot where a tire store stood this morning, now a staging area for emergency personnel and the suddenly homeless. Beds, grocery carts full of water, medics.

And finally, back home. Can't sit still, so I walk down to the corner house for an hour while a track hoe digs three bodies from the rubble, kids who had taken refuge in a crawl space but the house was hit and collapsed on them, a refrigerator among other things having to be pulled off of them to open the grave in order for them to be given a proper burial on another day. City employee tells me two infants were killed in Alberta, one found across the road from her mom. Silence. No one really speaks beyond orders/instructions. Coroner glances down, then pronounces them dead.