I’m looking out my window right now at my neighbors. They have their kitchen lights on. Inside my house we have light - plenty enough light to light the whole room. And yet I still find it difficult to wrap my head around what just happened.
Of course the reminders are still there. I can’t leave my house due to the dusk to dawn curfew. I had to throw everything in my refrigerator away today. Wal-Mart was devoid of most cold goods. And I know that, just a few miles north of me, is nearly total devastation. And it’s not just here. The entire northern half of Alabama was just hit by the worst series of storms and tornadoes since 1925. It has even bigger than the 1974 Super Outbreak.
I know all this. But in a way, it still hasn’t sunk in that I just lived through a major natural disaster; one that is being classified at the same level as September 11th and Hurricane Katrina.
There were three “lines” of storms that moved through the Huntsville area. The first moved through in the early morning hours. We were woken by our weather radio going off; I switched on the weather channel, determined that the tornadoes were no threat, and tried to go back to sleep. I hate to say that, after this many years in Huntsville, I’ve become “used to” the tornado threat, but it’s kind of the truth. Whenever I hear the sirens, I turn on Dan Satterfield, determine whether or not I need to worry, and otherwise go about my business.
That’s what I proceeded to do for much of April 27th. I went to work just like normal, but kept an eye on the weather situation. About 11am, the next line moved through. We weathered it at work, but not without some very close calls, including a wall cloud I photographed going right over our office, and another rotating cloud that went right near the office as well. My wife’s job let her go early, but I stuck it out at the office since the next round wasn’t due for a few hours.
I ended up bailing early and heading home about 4pm, just in time for the third and worst line to set in.
If you haven’t been “under the gun” for a tornado, or otherwise affected by a major natural disaster, it’s hard to explain what the terror is like. You know it’s coming, but you don’t know how long it will last or how bad it will be. The feeling of absolute helplessness is the worst. You are totally at the mercy of Mother Nature, and whether or not she decides to fuck up your shit is a stroke of the divine. None of your preparations matter. All you can do is take cover and pray to God that he spares your life, let alone all your shit.
At one point, Madison County was under 5 different tornado warnings at the same time.
The weather radio was just blaring non-stop.
We were in the half bath. Me, my wife, and our cat were under the blankets. The laptop was streaming weather and we were praying the next cell would just pass us by.
And then the power went out. We now know this was caused by an EF-5 tornado severing all the main lines between Huntsville and the Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Plant, but at the time we had no idea if this was caused by the power lines being cut at the end of the street. And at that point it got really loud and I was fairly certain this was it. This was the end. We were going to die. In a bathroom.
And then … it stopped. It moved away. We had been spared.
Cells would come and go for the next couple of hours. We were in the bathroom a few more times. Eventually UPS power keeping the cable modem ran out and we had to turn to a small black battery-powered shortwave radio that I had stashed upstairs in the office. This little thing would be our lifeline for the next 48 hours.
But finally, I heard the most beautiful words I can remember hearing in years: “Madison County, you’re in the clear.” I fished out a battery powered lantern from our camping supplies and we spent the rest of the night listening to the radio. People were calling in with information about how bad it was in various parts of the listening area. It quickly became clear that northern Madison up into the county had taken a pretty hard hit.
The next morning, we awoke. Sun was streaming in the windows. It was absolutely gorgeous outside. And cool. I had to put pants and a sweatshirt on to go out and inspect the house for damage. Fortunately, there was none. All around us the sun was shining. But there was no power.
I kept the radio on the call-in shows. People were already starting to act stupid. Rumors of gas shortages and places that “might” have power were sending people scattering. Sarah and I stood in line for some supplies at a drug store for about an hour and a half. They were hand-ringing people out by writing down what they were buying. That night we cooked hot dogs on the grill to avoid at least some of our food going bad.
In the middle of all this, I felt a little divine tap on my shoulder. I looked up. Imagine the most beautiful starry night you’ve ever seen. Then multiply it by 10. The stars were unbelievably gorgeous considering there was no other light anywhere in the entire county. We played “monopoly” by lantern light mostly because Sarah wanted to. I figured it was her way of coping; I would rather have just listened to the news.
I’d been trying to preserve my cellphone battery as long as possible by keeping it in Airplane Mode. Cellphone service quickly deteriorated to virtually nothing. I figured that I could manage to sneak a few text messages out and get a couple in, but not much. I did get a text message from a coworker saying he was coming up to pull some servers out of our rack and take them to Birmingham. I told him I’d meet him at the office. Needed to get out of the house.
So I went up to the office and helped them pull servers. While there, one of my coworkers mentioned that the company had a block of hotel rooms in Nashville and was paying for employees who wanted to go out of town to go to Nashville.
So Sarah and I had a long discussion about whether to go or wait it out. The key of the discussion was the cat. We eventually decided that, since the weather was nice and the only real problem was that there was no power, that we would leave her in the house rather than uproot her and traumatize her with a two-hour car ride and a few days in a hotel room. The house was secure, and she had plenty of food and water and is used to us occasionally leaving town for the weekend.
So that afternoon we left for Nashville. On our way up we drove through at least one damage path. We saw trees stripped of bark, farm fields full of debris, and huge billboards not just destroyed, but literally pulled up out of the ground, concrete and all, and tossed around. After we reached Nashville, we checked in and got settled. My company took all of us affected to dinner at a 5-star restaurant in Nashville. I drank a 14-year-old Port at $20 a glass.
On Saturday we toured the Lane Auto Museum, where you can find the the largest collection of European vehicles in the United States. Yes, in Nashville of all places. We also toured the Tennessee State Museum; both of these were great at getting our minds off of what happened. But the whole time I’m checking Twitter constantly, trying to figure out when we can go home. The estimates to turn power back on ranging from a couple days to a week plus.
Sunday afternoon, we finally got word. Thanks to the hard work of TVA and Huntsville Utilities, power was staring to slowly return to Huntsville. First to essential areas such as hospitals and water treatment plants, then to major public businesses such as grocers and gas stations. But by Sunday evening, residential power was beginning to come back. Sarah even got a call from her work letting her know they were going to be opening Monday. So we decided to head back Monday morning.
We got up and headed home. Stopped for breakfast at a McDonald’s outside Nashville where everything was written in Spanish first, then English. Then, eventually, got home. And the power was on!
As I mowed the lawn this afternoon, I noticed to beige in one of my bushes. I looked close. It was insulation. That was part of someone’s house at one time…
I’ve tried to give an accounting of what just happened. My thoughts are still so scattered. The only thing I know is that I’m thankful to God that I’m still alive. I’m looking at everything differently now. The little shit doesn’t matter. I AM ALIVE.
Guys, you’ve heard my story. I was unbelievably, amazingly fortunate. But there are a lot of people here that have lost everything. Don’t be fooled by the TV; Tuscaloosa’s getting all the coverage, but there is equivalent damage over enormous areas of the state. There are a half-dozen towns that are not just damaged, but have been completely wiped off the map. Even here in Huntsville, only about half of the town has power right now and we’re still under a dusk-dawn curfew. It’s going to be awhile before things are back to normal.
So while I sit here in my house thankful to be alive, there are people out there who have lost everything. Please, if you can donate time or money, please do. This time, the disaster struck us.