After five days, we have power once again at our house. We're lucky to still have a house.
On Wednesday morning, April 27, 2011, as I was driving to work my phone rang. It was my stepfather, and because the time read 5:15 AM, I was immediately alarmed. I answered, expecting to hear that someone in the family had died. Thankfully, he instead told me that the thunderstorm I was currently driving through had blown over one of the giant, ancient oak trees in my brother's yard. Its enormous bulk had crushed his Jeep and extended across the road into the neighbor's house. No one was injured, and my stepfather planned on helping him clean it up the following day. Relieved, I drove on to work.
As the day progressed, it became obvious that my brother's experience was not an isolated event. Beginning around 10:30 AM, tornado warnings were issued for all of the surrounding counties. If you're not familiar, during the spring and fall in the southeastern United States, warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico often collides in powerful fronts with colder, drier air from the Midwest and Canada. This often results in severe thunderstorms and occasionally tornadoes. When the storms occur, the National Weather Service will issue either a tornado watch or a tornado warning. A tornado warning is considered more severe because to be issued, tornado-like activity has to have been observed. When a tornado warning is issued, school systems must send the students to the safest available place (generally along the walls of interior hallways) and many businesses (including my own) force employees to take shelter in basements or on the first floor. On this day, for about three hours total, I sat in a stairwell and read some Terry Pratchett.
Something to know about our area: people here go apeshit over severe weather. It has become something of a running joke. This has been largely due to sensationalism by local weatherman. The most egregious example has actually been reprimanded by the National Weather Service for what essentially amounts to fear mongering. So while I have seen plenty of severe weather damage, including tornadoes, while growing up here, I generally remain skeptical during one of these storm systems. However, after returning to my desk around 1:30 from the most recent warning, my co-worker was gathering his things and preparing to leave. His wife had called, and their neighbor's roof had been blown off. At this point I realized things may be getting serious, because all the talk that I had heard indicated the worst storms were supposed to arrive later in the afternoon. After waiting for another wave to pass, my boss gave me permission to leave because my wife and child were home alone.
The ride home increased my anxiety. As I passed my co-workers neighborhood, numerous mature trees were snapped in half and all manner of debris lay about beside the road. Heavy winds would occasionally blow my car and I raced home, hoping to beat the next system which the radio said would pass near my community. My drive home is about 25 miles, and significant storm damage was visible that entire amount.
At home I was relieved to find no damage. Two trees in the neighborhood had been split, but nothing serious. Turning on the television news, it was obvious that all hell was breaking loose across the state. Already reports were coming in of communities being hit by serious tornadoes. Our neighborhood sirens began wailing, and continued to do so intermittently for the next several hours. Durring these times my wife, daughter, and dog sat with me in our washroom closet. It was exciting for my daughter, because the dog was present, but not so much for the dog, who quickly tired of the extra attention. Soon the power went down.
During one of the breaks, I could hear a dull roar, so my wife and I stood on our front porch to investigate. Southeast of us a dark and fast-moving column of clouds raced across the horizon. We later realized this was one of the most devastating tornadoes to pass through our area, over a quarter of a mile wide and with winds in excess of 170 miles an hour.
The storms continued into the night but never passed near our area again. The cell phone network collapsed under stress after the storms passed and people began trying to get in touch with each other. It took me several hours to reach my friends. What little information that was available indicated that the nuclear power plant servicing our area had been damaged in some way that prevented power leaving the plant and all three of its reactors had been cooled down to a holding stage. Everyone knew several tornadoes had touched down but no one knew the exact scope.
Over the next couple of days, without power and trying to avoid the extremely long lines at the handful of places still open, we traveled from friends and family houses spending the night. We learned that less than ten miles south of us, the tornado that we witnessed had flattened entire subdivisions and sheared concrete poles in half. Elsewhere in the state entire communities had disappeared. The last official number I have seen lists 249 deaths in our state alone, with many many still unaccounted for and several hundred thousand still without power. Seeing the devastation all around us, I realize how incredibly fortunate we were to have not had more damage.
Today I picked up the detritus that had landed in the yard. Shingles, tar paper, insulation, a personal photographs, and a page out of a church hymnal had all landed here. Someone my wife knows had mail from Tuscaloosa, which is an easy two and a half-hour drive from here, land on their property.
I realize this is not a great account, but I wanted to get something down while still fresh.
The good news, aside from our neighborhood being spared, is that help has flooded in to the state. One of the friends we stayed with called the local Red Cross and was told that they had more food donations than they could concurrently store. Volunteers continue to show up.
We were amazingly fortunate, and the whole experience reinforces my constant reminder to myself, my wife, and my friends that every moment is fleeting, and try to always appreciate the time you have with those around you.