Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ima Little Bit Scared...

(Updated to add more pictures and video)
I didn’t see the news stories about the tornados that ripped through the Southeast on April 27th. The first round of storms took out the power at my house around 10:00 a.m.

I’ve lived in North Alabama for a long time. The first time was in 1973-74, so I lived here during the devastating tornados then. My brother and I huddled with my parents in the hallway of our quarters on Redstone Arsenal. I saw some of the damage in the weeks following but I was young enough that my biggest concern was about the veterinarian’s office and if the puppies were okay. I moved back here in 1978 and have been here since then. In 1989, I’d driven through the intersection of Airport Road and Memorial Parkway only minutes before a tornado struck there.

One time, I did go to my parents’ house (they had a basement) because the weather folks were saying a large tornado was in the next town and heading my way. During that short drive, light debris started hitting my windshield and I decided that I would not ever leave my house again during severe storms.

Even with all of that, I don’t get too twitchy about storm warnings. We hear them all of the time in this part of the country. If severe weather is expected, I keep the television tuned to a local station. I keep a watch on the sky to the West. Other than that, I don't modify my activities much.

On April 27th, I was studying for the last final of the semester but I had the television on so I could monitor the expected bad weather. A friend was visiting from out of town and I was hoping to finish my schoolwork early so we could go do something fun.

I’ve weathered a number of storms in my house. This day felt different. As the first line of thunderstorms neared, the sky looked different. For the first time in my life, I put on sturdy shoes and we went into my closet and shut the door. The power went out but we could hear the storm outside.

After the storm was over, I kept expecting the power to come back on. I’ve lived in my house for ten years and have never lost power for more than 15 minutes. I’ve often questioned why I even accepted the generator from my parents when they moved.

My son came home from work early and reminded me that our iPods worked as radios. Fortunately, both were fully charged. I found my headphones, we turned the volume up and huddled around the iPod to listen to the news. It seems a tornado had hit less than a half-mile south of my house.

My ex-husband called. He was on his way home from work as he had also been dismissed early. He had to take multiple detours due to the trees down on so many roads. What was usually a 20 minute or shorter drive became a two-hour trip. When he got home, my son went to get him and they came to my house. We were tracking the storms on the radio and knew that another line of severe storms, with tornados embedded, were headed our way. They were still at least a half-hour away so we went into my backyard to watch the horizon.

The lightning started getting intense and the birds were all heading East. Then, we saw something else in the sky. After a moment or two, we realized it was a shingle. Twenty to thirty minutes ahead of the storm, debris was falling from the sky. More followed.

A little background about my dog, Gulliver: He is terrified of slick floors. He has no interest in coming into the house since I got rid of the carpet and put down tile and laminate.

That day, he was quite insistent about coming into the house. He did not give a shit about slick floors on April 27th.

I told the guys, “We need to go get in the closet NOW.”

My son, with all of the scornful disdain a twenty-four year old can muster, said, “Mom, you live on a slab. We need to go across the street to the [neighbor’s] storm shelter.”

I’ve known these people for over twenty years. I’d never considered going to their storm shelter prior to that day. We grabbed flashlights, iPods, and my purse and took off across the street. My dog freezes when on a leash and Baby Kitty is also not a fan of any kind of confinement. We left the animals in the house. Other people, strangers, were already at the shelter. Two men, a woman, two young teenage girls with their puppy, my son, my ex-husband, my friend, and I nervously waited. We listened to the news reports and watched the horizon.

We saw the storm coming. More debris fell from the sky. As the storm came closer, we rushed down the stairs and three of the men held the door shut. The latch was broken and they were determined to keep that door closed. Through a small gap at the top of the door, we watched debris fly by the shelter.

“Here it comes! Hold the door!”

The sound had changed. You always hear people say, usually in a thick Southern accent, that a tornado sounds like a freight train. It didn’t sound like that to me. One person described it as sounding like you’re trapped in a Hoover vacuum cleaner. That better fits what I heard. We could hear and feel the air being sucked out of the vents in the ceiling of the shelter. Our ears popped as the air pressure changed. We could hear the large trees above the shelter snapping in two. It was terrifying. I heard someone crying. I told them that it would be okay, that we were in a safe place.

After the storm, we went outside. Water had filled the ditches and was rushing down the hill. Trees all around us had been uprooted or broken in half.

This, apparently, happened around this time. Please don’t be judgy… we’re not all that redneck in these parts…

I was still listening to the news.

“Another one’s coming, same path, about ten minutes out.”

My memories of the rest of the day are a bit jumbled and the timeline of what happened is off, I’m sure.

When there were breaks in the storms, we left the shelter to go check on our homes. Crossing my driveway was a bit scary. The water was deeper and more quickly moving than I was comfortable with but seemed passable, so we crossed despite this.

I’m really glad that I put my boots on early that morning. Looking down the hill, I could see that the bottom of my street was covered in water.

At least two of the houses now had lakes instead of lawns.

I noticed that, with the overflowing ditches and continuing copious amounts of rain, water was starting to come in my front door. I’m on a hill and not in a flood zone and the amounts of water were incredible. I thought about changing into dry clothes but, at that point, it seemed kind of pointless. We rolled towels and placed them between the storm door and the front door and hoped for the best.

I tried to call my daughter but calls weren’t going through. She lives about an hour south of me and they were having tornados, too. I texted her and, thankfully, received word that she, the son-in-law, and my grandgirls were all fine.

My son drove to his dad’s house to get his dog and bring him to my house. He unplugged my computer and moved it from the floor to a table. Phone signals were already shaky at best, texting worked a little bit. I texted him that another storm was coming and he needed to get back to the shelter.

One of the other men and his two daughters came back to the shelter. The girls were sobbing. They’d gone to check on their house and it was gone. Everything gone.

The radio stations told us what was going on around us. The reports were devastating. The Piggly Wiggly grocery store was destroyed, people were trapped inside. The nearby gas station was completely gone. Hacklesberg, Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Cullman, Tanner and other towns and communities all hit.

As the storm got closer, we went back down the stairs and the men held the door. The only light was from the gap at the top of the door and my son’s iPod. My iPod’s battery had run out during the earlier storms. We heard a man shouting outside.

“Can we come in? We have babies.”

You know, it should have been obvious to me prior to this storm that you don’t need an invitation to use a storm shelter. No one cares if they know you or not. It doesn’t matter. Get in a shelter when there’s a storm coming. The man, his wife, and their two children joined us in the shelter.

The ground above the shelter was completely saturated and water dripped into buckets. That was the only sound before the roaring started again. I’m not sure how many storms went over and around us that day. It seemed as if they just kept coming. Every single time we left the shelter, the damage to the area was worse. The flooding was worse, more trees were down. It was awful.

When we finally got the all clear, it was dark. We navigated our way across flooded ditches back to my house. The water on my sidewalk was halfway up my leg. When we got into the house, the dogs and cat were completely freaked. The water was about an inch deep in most of my house. Fortunately, because I live on a hill, the water outside started to recede pretty quickly. By flashlight and candlelight, we used push brooms to get most of the water out of the house. On hands and knees, we used every towel, blanket and sheet in my linen closet to try to dry the floors.

I think we were all a little shell-shocked. We didn’t know what to do, so we just did stuff. ~shrug~

My ex and son decided that they were going to try to go to his house, about a mile away. My ex was pretty sure the house, a mobile home, wasn’t even going to be there but because of all the trees down, they were going to walk. My ex-husband’s street intersects mine but when they got to the end of my street, they couldn’t even see his street because of the downed trees and debris. They came back to my house and decided they’d drive and go around a different way. Within a few minutes, they were back. All of the roads leading to his house were impassable.

It was decided that the only thing to do at this point was have a beer or two. The ex rarely drinks but even he indulged that night. By candlelight, in the damp living room, we talked a little about how scary it had been and how lucky we were. We had no idea.

The next day, when the sun came out, it became very apparent how fortunate we had been. About 150 yards from my house and beyond, it looks like a war zone.

I have been at the north end of my street at least three times a week for the past ten years. If someone had blindfolded me and put me at the spot where my road intersects my ex-husband’s, when I’d take off that blindfold, I would not know where I was.
There used to be forest. There isn’t.

There used to be houses. Most are gone and those that are left are nearly unrecognizable. There was a storage facility in the neighborhood. The shell of that is gone but all of the belongings inside of it were left… just sitting there. Power lines were draped across the road. Trees turned into toothpicks. Huge power towers bringing TVA electricity to the county crumpled into piles of twisted metal.

People lost everything they owned. People died on my street, on the next street, and on the next street after that.

Most, if not all, of the county was without power. So, while the gas stations had gasoline, they didn’t have electricity to run the pumps. The stores and businesses were mostly shut down because cash registers don’t run without electricity. Some stores were open but it was cash only and correct change, please. Taxes were figured with calculators, pen and paper.

My brother drove down from Nashville. He brought beer (very important!), ice (also important!), a propane lantern (teh awesome!), and other supplies. He also brought his chainsaw and a willingness to work. He, along with my friend and neighbors, made quick work of the partially downed tree in my front yard. We went over to my ex-husband’s house and for an hour before he got home, my brother used his chainsaw to reduce some of the trees into manageable branches that my sister-in-law and I dragged to the road. After the ex and my son got there, we took care of more of the downed trees.

A few lessons learned:
1. Have cash on hand. I usually don’t but I will from now on.
2. Have a full tank of gas. Always. Thanks to my friend, I did. Fill up when you get to half a tank. I will from this point forward.
3. Have propane. I had a little but not enough.
4. Have a generator. Thank you, Mom and Dad. Thank you, my dear friend, for getting it running again. Side note: start the generator at least once a month and make sure it’s always in proper working order…even if you’ve never lost power for more than 15 minutes.
5. Have a battery powered radio. I partially have that now. I will completely have that soon.
6. Have extra water. We filled containers the next morning because we didn’t know if the water supply would be effected.
7. Have shelf-stable foods and a manual can opener.

I know there’s more but, honestly, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around what happened here. Two days after the tornados, I drove to Columbia, TN. I thought that because it was off the beaten track, I could go there and get what I needed. No D-cell batteries in the whole town. Propane was found at the Lowe’s. I filled 8 five-gallon cans with gasoline, bought bar oil and two-stroke additive for chainsaws, and stocked up on water and beer and other necessary items. I got lost on the way home and found D-cell batteries at a co-op in Maryville, TN. Go figure.

We were without power for ten days. Friends with a gas hot water heater offered up hot showers. I took one cold shower here and decided that conditioner is, despite my previous belief, completely optional. Will never do that again. Brrr. I can cook anyflippingthing on the grill. The Red Cross, particularly the Omaha-based crew working my neighborhood, was wonderful. They provided food, humor, and information. They brought hot lunches and dinners on most days. While I had the ability to cook on my grill, after you’ve worked all day cleaning up branches, debris, mud and other stuff, it sure is nice to have someone else cook dinner. I cooked breakfast every day. I had my neighbors over and offered up refrigerator and freezer space for their food (thankful again for the generator).

I will not be complacent about severe weather any more. I have a weather radio now (they used to annoy me). I am preparing a “go bag” to keep in my closet. It is a waterproof backpack with the bare necessities. April 27th and the ten days following taught me what those are.

I hope that by writing all of this (and I do apologize for the length), that I’ll stop getting twitchy about dark clouds. I’ve never been a fearful person and I don’t intend to start now.

I had damage to my house but no one in my family was injured. I was inconvenienced but was still able to stay in my home.

I saw this story about a week after the event. I'd heard that this had happened near me but didn't know there was a news report.

Ima very thankful gal.
(I have a few more pictures but email is slow tonight so I'm not able to quickly retrieve them from my phone - will probably have an update tomorrow.)


Erik said...

Amazing story. I'm a lurker on AoSHQ, and came here after reading your comment. It makes me so sad to hear of death, destruction, and disaster. All the best to all of you - your friends and your family.

Anonymous said...

So glad you and your family are OK, and thanks for this story - I'm another Ace lurker :-)
Actually we all should have an emergency bag of goodies wherever we are

Ima Wurdibitsch said...

Thank you both for the kind comments. Great point, Anon. I've heard for years, "Have a distaster plan and a disaster kit." I knew it was a good idea. I planned to do it; I just never did. That's changed now.

Becca said...

So glad you are OK, Ima. I have read a lot about this but this is the most real feeling (and scariest) account so far. Thinking of all of you down there.

Gringa-n-Mexico said...

Oh my GOSH GOSH!!! Oh my, I just... well damn you know, holy crap. I'm so glad you're ok!! And your house, omygosh. Sorry, I don't have much cohearent to say, it's just crazy you know. Thanks for sharing? I'm such a dork, but you know, glad you're o.k. :)

Ima Wurdibitsch said...

Thanks, Becca. It was really, really scary. We really were lucky.

Gringa, you never fail to make me smile and laugh! I love that you are a dork just like me!

Anonymous said...

I so wish I'd known what you needed. I could have brought it down to you. It's really not that far!

With that said, what do you need, now? What do the people you know need? How can I help?

The Husband is excellent in an emergency. He has the know-how to make thinks like the kerosene heater work. However, he can't make clean water or cash appear! We need to make an emergency stash, too.

Beth said...

Oh my stinkin' heck, Ima! So glad you are safe. Love you.

Ima Wurdibitsch said...

Lydia, thank you. We have power now and I never appreciated how wonderful that is. I don't think I need anything now. There is a ton of support rolling into the area. My insurance doesn't cover the flood damage to my house. I live on a hill; I'm not in a flood zone; and, I, mistakenly, thought that I couldn't get flood coverage if I wasn't in a flood zone. I'm hopeful that FEMA will cover the losses in my home due to the flooding. Seriously, get your emergency stash ready. It's important.

Beth, thank you. Love you, too, muchly.

As I look back on the past couple of weeks, I am just grateful. The more I see of the damage around here, the more I realize just how lucky I was. Sure, I'm going to have to deal with repairs and what's covered (not much) and not covered by insurance (much) but, in the grand scheme of things, that is so minimal, in retrospect. My family made it through this without injury . That is a BIG deal. Less than a mile away from here, people lost so much more. Every time I start to fret about fixing this or that, the fretting only lasts a millisecond. The absolute destruction and tragedy so near to me puts it all in perspective. I've realized that I need to appreciate those repairs. They're minimal compared to what others in this area have to deal with now.

I have a tattoo of a phoenix. I first drew it and got it many years ago. I've crashed and burned many times in my life but I've always risen from the ashes stronger than I was before. This is just another time when I've learned what it is I need to do to be stronger.

Larry said...

We had some pretty bad tornadoes here in Raleigh last April. I grew up in the Midwest (Iowa) so I'm familiar with tornadoes, but here in NC we don't have many storm shelters.
Glad you made it through OK.
(GGE of the Moron Horde and a Monkey Junkie)

Jennifer said...

Oh wow! Great lessons learned, but a terrifying way to learn them.