It’s hard to know what to write about an event like the storms in Alabama last week. It’s big, for one, bigger than I know how to describe. But along with that, when you’re in it, you don’t get how big it is. You deal with what’s in front of you, because that’s all there’s time for. Also because that’s all you hear about. I had no idea how bad the damage was in other areas for a while, a day at least, maybe longer. I heard towns listed on the radio, which was all we had access to, and that was it.
Anyway, I’ll try to go through the day, the best I can.
I woke up last Wednesday to a terrific thunderstorm outside. The lightening lit up my old bedroom and woke me up, the claps of thunder shaking the windows less than a second after each flash. I was glad that Xander was sleeping through it and didn’t think much else about it. A few hours later, the storm sirens woke me up. It’d been long enough since living in Alabama that I didn’t really know what it meant. Mom was already watching the news to see how bad the weather was, and where the tornado, if there was one, was in relationship to us.
It wasn’t too bad, so we all went about our morning. Dad went to work, I got ready for the baby to wake up. The sirens rang in the background the entire morning.
My cousin Casey came over, he’s doing some contract work on cell towers and stays with my parents when he’s nearby. He’d been an hour or so away that morning and had to take shelter in a Wall-Mart because the winds were so strong that they were blowing his car across the parking lot…while he was in it.
At some point, I don’t know exactly when, we lost power. The internet had been down since early morning. We found a radio and put on a local station, while I kept loose tabs on what was going on via my iPhone. As the winds picked up, Mom went outside to trim some flowers so they wouldn’t break in the storm and Casey watched the clouds swirling above. I stayed inside with Xander, who was playing on the floor. I let the dogs inside and could barely open the door because of the massive pressure change.
I went to one of the big windows and watched as a house being built across a small lake behind my parents’ house blew over. Seconds later, Casey came back inside when a tree snapped in half. And then another. And another.
The sky had turned an unmistakable shade of green. I grabbed Xander, trying not to panic, and moved away from the windows. Branches and tree trunks flew across the sky.
The best place for us to be was in a small hallway off the garage, so that’s where we went. Xander I sat on the toilet in the powder room off the hallway. It was so dark. I remember looking down at the baby, just barely making out his wild hair and finger dimples clutching his bottle and thinking “oh my God.” For his part, Xander was having a ball, bouncing up and down on my lap while the wind rushed over us, sounding like a freight train.
It calmed down a bit eventually, and Xander and I ventured out of the bathroom into the living room. I didn’t let him get near any windows, though, because it was still pretty wild outside. Dad came home from work, Casey left to go to my brother’s house a few blocks away. The day gets a little muddled here, because it was one big mess of “take shelter” messages, brief periods of calm, and a looming sense of dread that I couldn’t get rid of.
At one point, when it was pretty calm and the sky was no longer green, Mom and I ventured out for a short walk to see what had happened. There were a lot of trees down, shingles and gutters littered the roads. We kept pointing to broken trees and laughing, “can you believe it?!”
We had no idea.
We went back in when it got too calm, and when, out of no where, branches and other debris starting falling from the sky, like someone was dropping them overhead. Inside, Mom and I watched as a funnel cloud formed over the second lake behind their house.
I grabbed the sleeping baby (who was royally pissed at having his nap interrupted) and went back into the hallway where we stayed for the rest of the night, texting JS practically every minute for weather updates and to let him know we were OK. We sent over 100 messages that day.
The radio announcers could barely keep up. At one point they said “if you live in Northern Alabama, take shelter.” It was so odd to hear our small town, Harvest, mentioned by name. “A tornado is confirmed, on the ground, in the Harvest area.” And then street names, at the entrance of our subdivision. Then more street names, where my dad’s office is. More, and more, and more. Over and over. “Another tornado on the ground at X and Y street.” Half a mile. “At A and B Street.” Half a mile in the other direction. I got very scared when my best friend’s small town was listed by name, but had no way of knowing if she was OK, or if they had already left, or anything. But I couldn’t worry long, because another tornado was just listed down the street from us. Again.
Until, suddenly, it was over. The sirens went off. We were given the all clear. We had some candles and flashlights and went about trying to go to bed, moving Xander’s pack and play back in to the bedroom. That night, any time a car drove down the street, whenever the neighbor’s started their generator, anything, any sound or light, had me bolt up out of bed in a blind panic. “Is it back? Is Xander OK? Should I move him again?” Eventually I gave up on sleep and stared into the darkness around me, waiting for daylight.
I knew we’d been lucky, but I still had no idea how bad it had been.
At some point the next day, we started to learn more. We were told we’d have no power for at least 5 days (today, a week later, my parents JUST got their power back). We heard that Tuscaloosa was hit bad. The President was coming. Hundreds dead. More missing. F-4 tornadoes. My brother was worried about his friend, who’d been in Phil Campbell – a town completely wiped out – no one could reach her. We had to drive to a different town to get gas, and I couldn’t stop gaping at the amount of destruction around me. Mostly, though, the news we heard was VERY local. What gas stations were open. Where to get ice. Which stores had generators. We were very isolated, and as soon as the storms had past, none of us had access to anything, even on our cell phones.
So…yes. It was terrifying. And this may qualify as the worst vacation I’ve never taken. But oh my. Oh, my. We were so lucky. So incredibly lucky. One of the tornadoes that went through Harvest was an F-5. F-5. And my parents didn’t loose a solitary shingle. Not one of their trees so much as bent over. My brother’s house sustained some minor roof damage. That’s it.
It’s hard to reconcile the two things – the fear (even more so retrospectively, now that I know how dangerous the situation was) and the worry and the helplessness with the relief and gratitude of good luck. And, of course, with the grief and sadness over the cities and towns and families who were NOT as luck as we were. Those who lost their houses. Their possessions. Their children.
I’m so raw right now. My emotions are so close to the surface. I only barely fought off panic attacks when there were thunderstorms in Dallas on our return flight. And I was only able to do so for Xander’s sake. I keep imagining how much worse it could have been. I can just picture his tiny little body flying away from me, into the unnaturally colored sky, and my stomach clenches violently. I barely let him out of my site. I check on him while he naps, I pause outside his door at night to listen to him breathing. And the same with JS. I’m glad, for his sake, he wasn’t stuck with us during the storms, but selfishly I’d wanted him there to give me courage and comfort. I want to hold them both close to me and never let them go, never let us be apart, never let anything bad happen, ever.
But I can’t.
I can only love them fiercely and know how lucky I am to have them in my life, and try to never forget this feeling, never forget how damn lucky I was, we were…never take it for granted.