It’s funny how things happen. One minute you’re fine and things are just everyday normal, then a few minutes later things are completely not-fine and not-normal. All the disaster and apocalypse novels and movies I’ve read and seen, and when it happens, all I can do is stand and stare. One thing is for certain—you can never really prepare yourself.
Wednesday, April 27th started out an ugly, dreary day. As my husband left for work in the morning, he told me that school had been cancelled, which was fine by me since I had a sick baby to take care of and I didn’t want to get him out in the rain to take my daughter to school. I rolled over and went back to sleep. The day cleared later, and it was actually pretty nice outside; the sun shone for most of the day and it didn’t rain any more. I checked the weather online, just to be sure, and it seemed that the rain would be rolling in around 2 or 3 in the afternoon.
We spent the day being lazy. I cleaned the house a bit, we watched Netflix, ate lunch. I thought about going to the store, but I changed my mind. The baby does not like his car seat and I didn’t feel like fighting with him to buckle him into to it.
Around 3 that afternoon, the sky started to darken. It looked worse than normal storm clouds, so I told Carla to turn off Netflix and put the TV on the local channel (we only have one, which we receive by antenna). I could tell that the weather was bad, but General Hospital was still on, so I figured it wasn’t that bad. But as it got darker and more ominous outside, I told Carla to switch back to the TV again. This time, the weatherman was on. Since we get our one channel by antenna and it’s coming out of Birmingham, the picture kept breaking up, and the sound was terrible. I could tell though that there was a line of storms coming our way, and that it was supposed to have tornadoes in it. I was worried, but then the meteorologist said that it would pass through the northern tip of the county, which is very far from where I live—almost an hour. I kept watching just in case, though, and the picture quality steadily worsened. Eventually, I got my daughter’s radio out and plugged it in. That’s when I heard about the second front coming our way, headed toward downtown Tuscaloosa, according to the newscaster.
Now you have to understand a few things. First, tornadoes are a fact of life here in the south, and we used to practice tornado drills in school. I know what to do and where to go in case of a tornado; that being said, I have never really done any of those precautionary things in the event that the alarm sounded. In general, I think most southerners have the “Boy who cried wolf” mentality—the alarms go off so often and nothing ever happens that we’ve started to believe that nothing ever will happen. Second, I live fairly close to downtown Tuscaloosa, but not really “near” it. It’s about 5 minutes by car. Third, I’d had a bad feeling all day. Maybe it was the fact they’d canceled school. Maybe it was the way the air felt or the quality of light. Maybe it was something else. But when I heard that the projected path was downtown Tuscaloosa, I decided we should get ready to go into our bathroom.
Our house is old, so we have this totally random bathroom in the middle of the house. It used to be the back of the house, but they added on some room, so now the bathroom is in the middle. It has no windows but it has two doors. This is our safe room. So we got pillows from the couch and blankets to put on the floor, and one to cover the toilet because the baby will totally put his mouth on anything and we sat on the floor in the bathroom. My daughter put her bicycle helmet on; one of the meteorologists suggested it. We were laughing, but I was already ready to get out. The radio was still telling people to get to a safe place, so I stayed where I was, but a small bathroom with a chatty nine-year-old and a wiggly 8 month old is not a fun place. Eventually, we let the dog in as well. Add one crazy pug-chihuahua to the mix and I would gladly have left the bathroom. All of a sudden there’s a knock on the bathroom door and my husband pops his head in; he goes to get the radio, plugs it in the bathroom, then goes to the other bathroom to pee. When he comes back, I give him the baby to give my arms a break. We’re just talking and laughing about my daughter in her bike helmet when the power flickers. But then it comes back on. My daughter looks scared, so I pull her to me. Then, the lights flicker again, but this time they don’t come back on. I look at my husband and tell him to get the pillows, I grab the baby and he puts the pillows on top of us and holds on.
It may have only been a few seconds, but it felt like forever. At first there’s a crash, like something breaking. I thought it sounded like glasses falling out of the cabinet. Then there’s a cacophony of sounds—thumps, crashes, scrapes, loud and violent. And the whole house is shaking and it really does sound like a train is coming right through our house. My husband is saying over and over, “We’re okay, we’re alright” and I start praying the most sincere prayer of my life. I remember saying, over and over, crying and so afraid “God, just please keep us safe, just please keep us safe.” Over and over. It got quieter, then still more quiet, until it just sounded like the wind. And to tell you the truth, the wind sounded so loud that I was sure that the back of the house was gone—kind of like that scene in Day After Tomorrow where the janitor opens the door and the rest of the building is gone? That’s what I thought was about to happen to us. My husband opens the door and goes to check. It feels like he’s taking forever. Eventually, I go out too, and I can’t believe what I saw.
The house was fine, apparently. There were a ton of trees down outside; in fact, you couldn’t see out any of the windows because of all the downed trees. What really took my breath away was the view from the front porch. It looked like we had been bombed. I just stood there and stared for what seemed like forever. I couldn’t make what I was seeing make sense. Trees down and broken all over, windows and roofs gone, downed power lines in our front yard. The grill blown off the porch, but the lightweight chairs still sitting where they had been before the storm.
Later on that day, we would leave the house to see what was going on beyond our street, only to find that the end of our street began the devastation. An entire neighborhood of homes and trees gone. The kind of devastation that surely must have lethal. You’ve seen the images by now. If not, youtube has some videos. We were lucky, but many of our neighbors were not. My daughters school was severely damaged.
We went back to our house, and reality started to set in. How could I keep two small children in these conditions. All I wanted to do was pack our bags and put them in the car and go to my parents house. Unfortunately, the streets were impassable. My parents decided to come up to get us in the morning, so we were going to have to make do for that one night. We decided we would all sleep in my bedroom, since my daughter was scared to sleep in her own room. I’d had some pork ribs marinating in the fridge so I went ahead and started to cook them on the grill, which worked, miraculously. After we ate, we tried to get cool and the kids laid down to sleep. I started packing our bags, and my husband went to walk to the end of the street where he saw headlights. A few minutes later he comes back to tell me that we have to leave the house. There are gas leaks everywhere and we’re the only people left on the block. I hurriedly pack a diaper bag and an overnight bag. Luckily, one of my husband’s friends had a place for us to stay, so we only had to get out of the neighborhood and make it to a place where he could pick us up. It was dark and there were no lights out as we headed out for the gas station at the main intersection. I carried both bags and two flashlights, my husband carried the baby, and our daughter walked between us. We made it out of our block, but the traffic lights were out at the corner, and the traffic was terrible. Eventually we made it across the street and were trying to decide if we could walk up the street on the side of the road in the dark, or if someone could give us a ride. I was tired, and hot, and I really wanted this to be a bad dream. As we were standing there debating our next course of action, the owner of the convenience store asked my husband if he was Mexican. My husband said yes, and the guy, who is Arabic (I think?) told him that he would give us a ride wherever we needed to go. When we arrived at the next gas station, I could finally see more of the effects—the entire main road was darkened and blocked off. I stood there and cried out of frustration, fear, and exhaustion. Eventually, my husband’s friend arrived and we went to his house and went straight to bed.
The next morning my parents arrived and me and the kids went home with them. That was a week ago today. My home is still without power. There’s some roof damage and the air conditioner flew away, but nothing too major. I’m torn between just wanting to go home and just wanted to stay here where disaster hasn’t touched anything.
My husband’s workplace was destroyed, so he’s doing independent contracting for now. There’s plenty of work. I’m supposed to start a new job on Monday. Let’s hope that happens. We really need for that to happen. I’m scared. I’m worried. I miss my husband. But we’re alive and we’re going to be together soon. That’s all that matters (as corny as that sounds!).