Monday, May 16, 2011

That Day

(Warning: Longest post EVER.  You need a few minutes.)

I wanted to write down my experience of April 27, 2011, before it got too far out and I started forgetting the details.  It was a day I will DEFINITELY never forget, but you always forget those little things, you know?  While I wish it had never happened, I want to be able to share my experience (which is NOTHING compared to some in this city) with others, and remember it for myself.

The day started at 4:50am.  I got a phone call from my mom.  My immediate first thought was, "either somebody has died, or there's a tornado."  That's bad, isn't it?  But I knew those are the only two ways she'd call me this early.  Sure enough, it was a tornado.  But that morning was more of a wind storm...there were a couple of small ones, but the whole northern half of the state had scattered wind damage.  Enough for a mother to wake up her 25 year old daughter at 4:50 in the morning.

I woke Noah up, and we laid in bed watching James Spann and Jason Simpson (who are the two BEST meteorologists in the business, in my opinion...they were on my TV a total of like 14 hours that day I think).  ( of those guys (James Spann) is from Tuscaloosa.  The other (Jason Simpson) is from Cullman.  They both had their hometowns directly impacted that day, but kept on being just professional, and saved more lives than anybody knows that day...I can't even begin to give my thanks for that.)  It got a little stormy here, but nothing major, I thought.  We've seen much worse (see 12 days before this day if you don't believe me).  It wasn't enough to get me worried, put it that way.

Naturally, my big concern that morning was whether or not we were going to get out of school (isn't it funny how quickly worries change?).  About 6am, they announced that the County Schools were out (which is the other system in Tuscaloosa, that I don't work for).  About 10 minutes later, they announced the City was out too.  Looking back, I think this might have been the best decision those systems have ever made.  Buses would have been running right when the big storm came through, and kids would have been in extended day programs at the two schools that were destroyed.  It's terrifying to even think about.

So this is at 6:30 in the morning, and I realize that we have a field trip the next day, and I don't have my contact information for parents to let them know the details.  So I throw on some clothes, put a hat on, and head to the school just to pick up a few things so I could work that day.  By the time I left my house, it was actually starting to get sunny...should have been red flag #1.  I'm heading down a road near my house, and there's a tree down in the road...should have been red flag #2, considering I didn't even think that storm was that bad.  But honestly, I wasn't that concerned...yet.

I will never forget seeing McFarland/15th for the last time (an intersection I literally cross every time I go to work, the one that was destroyed in the videos I showed you in this post).  It was what I would consider a very pretty day...muggy (like it's about to get stormy muggy), but pretty.  You know how you have certain "snaphsots" that you'll never forget?  One of mine was being in front of Hobby Lobby/Milo's/Full Moon (which are all gone) before the storm...I remember looking back to my left, and the sun was almost all out, and the clouds were moving incredibly fast.  That's when I got worried.

We didn't know quite when it was going to get bad...we were given a window of noon to midnight.  So I went on and went to the grocery store early.  I was home by probably 11, did my grocery blog post, emailed my parents about the field trip (that email came in incredibly helpful later), and got to work on blog designs.  My customers probably would have killed me if I hadn't worked that morning, because I don't think I did blog work again until the next weekend.

So I was hanging out...Noah was still at work.  Which I didn't like.  I called him multiple times and told him to get home (partly because I wanted him safe, partly because I was getting scared).  A few meteorologists I absolutely, totally trust were saying this could be the worst severe weather day that our generation has ever seen...that was scary.  So finally, by about 2, I talked him into coming home.

About the time he got home, the action started.  Cullman was first - I sat on the phone with my mom, crying and watching the tornado rip this city apart.  I had only seen a tornado live on tv once before this - and I definitely didn't think I'd see two this day.  I just remember being devastated as I watched this, thinking about how many people were dying and how much was being torn apart.

Here's the Cullman footage that I was watching live when it happened (fast forward a few minutes)...

It seemed like things were so chaotic that day, that there were 4 or 5 major, major storms going on at any given point. I don't know how the meteorologists did it...I would have balled up in the fetal position in a corner.

Before I knew it, there was a storm coming up the classic Tuscaloosa path...interstate, to river, to my neck of the woods (south Tuscaloosa).  Considering some of the monster pictures they had of this thing, I was definitely scared.  They just KEPT on saying that if you were under a tornado warning this day, there was a pretty good chance you would see a tornado...not like normal southern tornado warnings, that nobody takes seriously.

I am telling you, since I've lived in Tuscaloosa, a tornado has always taken the south-of-town route...never, EVER through the middle of Tuscaloosa.  So I never in a million years thought it would go north of us.  It's all kind of a blur honestly...seems like we were put under a warning, then this happened on TV (I know it was right at 5:00, because they're doing the station ID right at the beginning). Go to about 8 minutes for the "meat" of the video if you're short on time.

I was terrified. At this point, we got in the hall (Hardy, couch cushions and all).  All I knew was that where this camera was was looking south, and there was a massive tornado...I had absolutely no idea how far south.  And like I said, I had every reason to believe that it would follow that classic path and was headed straight for us.

It's all still just a blur, but I do remember at one point they mentioned Skyland Blvd...that's where my dad would have been if he was at work.  I called my parents' house, and this is another one of my "snapshots" of that brother answered, and I just said "Is everybody home?" (I remember very clearly crying pretty hard at this point.)  My brother (pretty freaked out himself) said they were all home and ok, and that I needed to get in the hall, and hung up.

I told you how I watched the Cullman tornado, and just couldn't stop thinking of the people or the city.  With this one, for some reason, my mind never connected with the fact that Tuscaloosa was being destroyed before my eyes...I guess I was just in survival mode.  I knew we were ok, and I knew my family was ok at that point...that sounds so, so selfish, but that survival mode told me I was ok as long as those two facts were true.  It wasn't until about an hour later that I really "got" what had happened.

About the point they say "Kauloosa Avenue" was when we started figuring out we were really going to be ok.  I got a video of the very limited amount we could see from our house, but it wasn't very good.  This is the video my brother got as soon as they figured out they were ok:

We probably lived about the same distance away from it, so if the trees hadn't been in the way, we would have seen this too.

So it passed, and we had no idea what to think.  You can't really tell from video - I didn't know if it had really touched down (I was in denial at this point), how bad it was, where it went through, so on, so on.  I just didn't have a clue.

We got the word that we were fine for at least the next hour (until 6:30).  Noah had to check on customers (he had much of this area insured), and our good friends have a game day house in The Downs (or where it used to be), so we went out to check on it.  If you're not from here, I'm going to be speaking jibberish...locals and people familiar with the area will understand.  We went McFarland to Hargrove, and that apartment complex right at the intersection had some roof hanging off.  I remember thinking how bad that looked...not knowing that was NOTHING compared to what we were about to see.  We were trying to go Hargrove to The Downs, but it was blocked by a we turned into the back part of Forrest Lake/whatever those houses are in.  That part wasn't really badly damaged...just some roof damage.

Somehow (and I still don't know how), we ended up at Midtown.  That's where the bad damage started.  I saw some guy standing upstairs in a house that didn't have an upstairs anymore...there were several like that.  Traffic was absolutely terrible at that point.  We saw another insurance agent in the craziness...all he said to Noah was "Have you seen 15th?  It's leveled."

Then we turned to get onto 15th.

I've never, never seen destruction like that in my life.  I just remember shaking really hard, and I couldn't take my hands off of my mouth.  I guess it was shock in what I was seeing.

There was literally nothing left.  The only thing I can compare it to was a bomb going off.  There was just NOTHING.  Another "snapshot" from that day - just plywood everywhere.  No semblance of structures ever standing, just piles of plywood, for as long as you could see.

From Midtown, we turned onto 15th, and tried to turn onto McFarland northbound to check on my school.  There were traffic lights and power lines down everywhere - there was no way we could have gotten there.  Noah could have gotten in with his insurance signs - but we decided it was too dangerous.  Another snapshot - there was a police officer at the intersection trying to direct traffic, but he was obviously in shock.  We asked him if we could turn left, but he just said "I don't know - I haven't even talked to my daughter yet."  Over, and over, and over.  I offered him my phone at one point, he didn't say anything.  It was just so sad.

It doesn't start to do it justice, but this is the picture I snapped that day:

This is what that same exact area looked like before, courtesy Google can kind of gain perspective by looking at where the left turn arrow is printed in the road:

At that point, we went home.  I kept on telling Noah we shouldn't have gone there, still just shaking and crying.  There's a definite feeling of guilt when your house is less than 5 miles from there, and there isn't so much as a limb in your front yard, but there's nothing left here.  I don't for the life of me understand why it didn't follow that has every other time I can remember.  It just didn't that time.

My parents didn't have power.  For some unknown reason, we NEVER NEVER lose power...don't get me wrong, I'm thankful, but it's just weird.  So they bunked with us that night.  We tried to explain to them what we saw...there was no way.  I remember pointing out landmarks and saying "yeah, that's gone too."  Many many times.  We watched the coverage on the news stations that night, not totally sure we weren't out of the woods yet.  Finally, about 8 o'clock that night, we got the all clear.

Our (incredible, fabulous, wonderful) mayor came on the radio at about 9 that night, and made another one of those snapshot speeches.  I remember being in the kitchen with my whole family listening over our one little dinky clock radio that we had in the house.  I wish I had a recording of it - he was incredible, and has been ever since.

I stayed up talking with my brothers until probably midnight that night - because that's the only thing we could do to deal with it.  We didn't know what else to do, and were honestly a little afraid to go to sleep.  There was so much fear still lingering, and I didn't know what tomorrow held.  Finally, we couldn't take it anymore, and went to bed.

I did, at one point, email my school parents.  It's the only thing I knew to do to get in touch with seemed inappropriate to call them when they were dealing with so much.  I never made an email list for my families until that morning, just because we had a few parents without an email.  But that's the only way I could get in touch with them that morning, so I did.  If I hadn't gone to the school to get my contact info that morning, I wouldn't have been able to get in touch with them until Friday.  Even though I only heard from a few, that was so important to me.

I've got so many other stories about that coming week, including calling my school families to make sure they were ok and going through the house in The Downs for the first time, but that's a whole 'nother post...I think this one has drug out enough.

Again, I can NEVER thank you enough for caring about this wonderful city over the past few weeks.  I (we) are so thankful!