Today's an anniversary here.
It's absolutely gorgeous outside. Couldn't have asked for a more beautiful day.
The 5 of us took a walk this morning and watched the boat races on the river. We had a lovely lunch outside at Midtown. And now the girls are (finally) asleep for some much needed rest.
One year ago, yesterday, I stayed up all night typing the events of our day on 4.27.11. I hadn't been able to write it out before then, and knew I'd want to remember. Knew I'd want to be able to look back at some point. So glad I typed it all out.
Here's my account of that day:
God be with them.
The words came out of my mouth as I stood there, eyes glued to the tv screen. It couldn't be real, and yet, there it was. All of our news stations were broadcasting live coverage of what was turning out to be the worst outbreak of storms in years, possibly even decades, in our state. While I was no stranger to storms, this was like nothing I had ever seen before, and the tone and urgency in the weatherman's voice told me that perhaps I shouldn't have been so thrilled when I'd learned that school had been cancelled for the day due to the "threat of bad weather". Hubs happened to be off too, so I thought we'd get to spend a fun day at home with the kids- maybe play outside and have a picnic. But this? Surely what I was seeing wasn't real, because on the screen was the biggest tornado I'd ever seen in my life. It rivaled the CGI twisters created for the movies, only this wasn't a movie.
It was real, and it was in Cullman, AL.
And it was on the ground.
I said another prayer for the people in Cullman and I clutched the baby girl on my hip a little tighter. Maybe there wouldn't be a picnic today. Maybe we should just stay inside in case it started to rain. Maybe the whole thing would blow over soon and I could run to Target for some groceries. We were always running low on milk and juice and an entire day off from work should give me ample time to run out and grab a few things.
Those were my thoughts exactly one year ago, on Wednesday, April 27, 2011. I have never been one to worry over the weather. Would my kid choke on a grape that was too big, or would one of them be running through the house with a pencil and fall on it, subsequently sending it through their eyeball and into their brain? Yes. These were the things I worried about constantly, not the weather. I love thunderstorms and even have fond memories of watching them from plastic chairs on the porch of my apartment building in college. I love the rain. I love the pure awesomeness of seeing lightning and hearing thunder, but what I'd just seen on the tv screen had nothing to do with a measly thunderstorm. My stomach actually went a little queasy, sending me to the bathroom several times, and in an attempt to think about something other than tornadoes,
I wrote about fabric- something I deemed as completely harmless and therefore completely opposite of a tornado. I must've really been shaken though, because my usual double and triple spell-check tendencies were off and I misspelled tornadoes. Twice.
We spent the entire day watching James Spann as he tracked the storm. Towercams would show us a visual until it moved out of range, only to be picked up by another towercam. Massive and on the ground. It stayed its course. Looking back, I think of us as sitting ducks, but we didn't know. How could any of us have known?
We stayed home. The kids played games, read books, watched movies, and the hubs and I tried to busy ourselves with things around the house. I sorted laundry and filled the dishwasher, picked up toys and emptied the trash. I don't recall us ever making any plans to go somewhere safer- somewhere with a basement perhaps. We just stayed.
At a little after 5 pm, the massive tornado was in Tuscaloosa county. Though I'd never seen any signs of it from hubs before, I could see it now- fear. He lost a little of the color in his face, and I knew. I knew it was bad and I also knew that it was too late for us to try and load the kids in the car and drive somewhere. Where could we go? His parents' house had a basement, but it was on the other side of town. Could we make it?
We told the kids to gather some toys and books and I spread out blankets in our center hallway. I sat with them and read and sang songs, all the while praying that God would pull it up into the sky. Please, God- just make it disappear. I know you can. Please just take it away and calm my fears. I also prayed that my children wouldn't be able to sense my fear. My heart was beating so fast that it was causing actual pain in my chest. It felt like every muscle in my body was tensed. After sitting at home all day trying to busy myself with menial tasks, I now realized that what I had been trying desperately to dismiss as a figment of my imagination was actually real and moving towards us, on the ground. And it was a mile wide. Hubs watched the tv in our bedroom from the hallway, and around 5:10 pm, we heard James Spann say, 15th Street. We pulled the full mattress off of the bed in the nursery and the twin mattress off of Oliver's bed and leaned them against the walls of our hallway creating a tent over us. I pulled Mary Martin into my lap, held Eliza on my right and Oliver on my left, and I wouldn't let them move. I didn't want a single inch of their bodies to leave the protective covering of those mattresses, as if they were some sort of metal shield that would protect us no matter what. God, if this storm hits us, please let us be okay underneath. Please let these mattresses be a shield of protection around us should the house be blown away.
We'd turned the volume down on the tv so the kids couldn't hear it, and while hubs continued to watch from the hallway, I held tight to our children and watched his face for any signs that we were in the clear. I didn't see any. What I did see was an incredibly pale face turn towards me and a mouth that uttered the words, "It's at Midtown, crossing McFarland".
Headed straight for us.
As soon as he spoke those words, we lost power.
He came and joined us underneath the mattresses, and we sat. We held our babies and prayed, and as I sat there completely hunched over as far as I could with both mattresses leaning over me, I actually thought of heaven. I really did. I thought, you know what, God? If this is our day- if you choose to take us now, it's okay. You've blessed me with far more than I deserve, and if we all leave this world today, at least we know where we're going.
I reached my hand behind me to feel the wall of our house as if somehow I might be able to gauge how close it was by the vibrations. I know- it's crazy, but I did it. I felt the wall. I remember thinking, it should be here by now. I couldn't hear anything hitting the house, and since I'd just been through this a week and half earlier, I remembered being scared silly when things started slamming against the windows and doors and roof.
But I heard nothing.
No limbs hitting the windows, nothing pounding the roof above our heads.
Just an eerie silence.
We sat hunched over in that hallway, not moving, for what seemed like an eternity. Why didn't we hear it? Had it passed? Was it completely gone? And if not, where did it go?
We had no power or cell service, so hubs did the only thing he knew to do- he ran outside. He could hear it, but he couldn't see it. Our neighborhood sits off of 15th St, so the only thing we could conclude was that it had turned.
And that's exactly what it did.
It's path was still pretty straight, but it was no longer headed down 15th Street.
After crossing McFarland Blvd and dancing briefly in the parking lot of University Mall, the tornado turned towards CVS, taking out Full Moon Barbecue, Chuck E. Cheese, Milo's, Big Lots, Tuesday Morning, a gym, and my beloved Hob Lob before heading straight for Alberta City where it took out our church.
My MIL's office, which sat near the corner of 15th and McFarland, was also completely destroyed. Only a few interior walls remained.
Shortly after hubs came back inside, we heard a knock at the back door. It was Lanny, a good friend of our parents' who lived in the neighborhood next to ours, and he'd been sent over to check on us. Our phones still had no service, but my parents had gotten a call through to him, and he was able to call them from his house to tell them we were okay. Since it had taken 6 days to get power restored from the storm that had come through just 12 days earlier, we figured we should at least head to my parents house and come up with a plan for where we'd spend the night. We loaded the kids in the car and I remember thinking, maybe we can grab some fast food on the way there. I wasn't at all hungry since the knot in my stomach and the pain in my chest were still going strong, but I knew the kids would need to eat soon. We loaded everyone in the car for what we thought would be an 8-10 minute drive. I'd grabbed my camera on the way out the door, and as soon as we hit 15th St, I started taking pictures.
We were immediately sitting in traffic. It was as if everyone in town had either jumped in their cars or were walking on the sidewalks. No one had power, so no one knew exactly what to expect.
CVS on the corner of 15th and McFarland
Police Officers had the intersection blocked off, so we turned into the parking lot of the mall. People were parking here and heading out on foot to look at the damage. There were people everywhere, just like in a disaster movie.
It was surreal.
Since our quickest route was cut off, we continued through the parking lot where we realized that an entire wall of Belk was missing. My SIL had been at work there just a couple of hours earlier.
My photos stop here, because sitting in the parking lot of the mall, I started to lose feeling in my fingers. My legs also tingled, and while I've never experienced 'shock' before, I realize that it was taking up residence in my body. There would be no stops for fast food that day, not just because most businesses had closed, but because the places we frequented weren't there anymore. Sitting in that parking lot, looking through that intersection, I had to squint and look again, and again.
After trying to reach my parent's house by two other routes, we realized that making it to their house might not be an option. They lived just over the bridge, but every single path to their house was cut off. We'd already been in the car for an hour and hadn't made it 4 miles from our house. We turned around and headed home, where we changed the girls diapers, grabbed a couple of movies for the dvd players, and filled the tank of hubs truck with gas he'd bought for the lawn mower. We tried yet another route to Northport by heading to Five Points in Cottondale and getting on University Blvd. Again, we sat. I have never seen so much traffic in all my life. I was angry, thinking that most of the people on the road were only there to look and gawk at everything, and then we'd pass a car with a tree limb stuck in it. And I was grateful. Grateful that we didn't have a tree limb sticking out of our car.
We made it as far as the intersection of Crescent Ridge Road and University Blvd, and I actually wish we hadn't made it there. The kids had already finished Tangled and were now watching The Phantom Menace. I wished they'd been watching anything but Darth Maul on the screen, because at that particular intersection, there were stretchers. By this time, it was getting dark, but I could still see what was happening and I prayed our children in the back seat couldn't. Trees were down everywhere, so were the power lines, and there were still people everywhere. Most of the people we saw now were coming out of Alberta City, which is where our church is. Hubs rolled down the window and asked a man walking by what it looked like in Alberta. His response was, "Man, you don't wanna know." He shook his head and looked down, and repeated, "You just don't wanna know. It's bad. Real bad." And then he continued walking. After sitting in traffic at that intersection for almost 30 minutes, we made it through and hubs actually drove over a few power lines and around a tree. We'd almost made it to the Moon Winx when we couldn't go any further. There were too many poles and trees and debris in the road, and the sun had set. There wasn't any power so it was now completely dark. Our last option was to take the toll bridge, which was the longest way possible to make it to his parents house, but it worked.
After being in the car for 3 hours and 45 minutes, we were at my in-laws house which is only about a 20-minute drive from where we live. The kids ate, but I was still too tense to eat anything. The entire time we'd been in the car, my hands had tingled and a few times I'd lost feeling in my fingers. My legs and back also ached, I guess from being hunched over in the hallway with those mattresses propped on my head. The 5 of us all slept in the same room that night in the clothes we'd been wearing all day, and to be honest, I wish we'd all slept in the same bed. I wanted to be able to touch all of my children and my husband, just to make sure they were really there. I don't think I closed my eyes once all night. I just laid there, thanking God over and over for protecting us. Thank you for keeping us safe, God. Thank you, thank you.
School was cancelled for the rest of the week.
On Friday, I went to my friend Jamie's house to sort through some clothes that had been donated for families in our church. Many of our church members lost everything, but miraculously, all of them survived. We watched a special NBC Dateline about the massive tornado that hit Tuscaloosa just two days earlier. It was still surreal. By this time, we were fully aware of the damage done to our city. If we hadn't passed it driving down the road, we'd seen it on the news. They called it the 'perfect storm', since conditions that day had been just right to form a tornado of that size and keep it on the ground.
Late that night, I woke up with the worst stomach cramps I'd ever had in my life. Labor pains didn't even come close to being as bad as whatever was going on inside me at the time. We were still staying in the guest room at my in-laws, so I crawled out of the room, woke my MIL, and asked if she'd take me to the hospital. I was that certain that something was really, really wrong.
And I was right.
After ruling out a kidney stone, the Dr. informed me that my appendix was almost 3 times the size that it should be and that it needed to come out immediately. I include this part in the post not to talk about the surgery, but to say this: while in that hospital room, I wept. I didn't weep from the pain or from anything having to do with the reason that I was actually in that hospital, but because I'd suppressed my fear, and shock, and every single feeling I'd had since the storm. I didn't want my kids to see me afraid and I didn't want them to see me sad. So I held it in. I don't even remember what it was that set me off, but I remember hearing someone say tornado, and that's when it happened. I cried. With every bit of energy I had left (after puking all night long) I cried. I cried for our church building that was gone, I cried for the families we knew that had lost everything, I cried for being so afraid and for trying so hard not to show it. I cried and I didn't even care who saw or heard me. I just cried. And you know what?
I felt better.
Don't get me wrong- that appendix still came out an hour later, but sometimes you just need to have a good, loud, nasty,ugly cry.
And I'm still convinced that pure fear mixed with a heap of shock will grow your appendix to 3 times its normal size. I am also convinced that if the fine Dr. that performed my surgery had truly cared about me, he would have given me a tummy tuck while he was down there, like I requested. What difference would a few more stitches have made anyway, hmmm?
Our children now play 'tornado'. Every child in our town, no matter where they were at the time, was affected by the storm. They saw it on the news, they passed piles of rubble in their car, and perhaps they even spent the day in a bicycle helmet in the bathtub, or under a pile of mattresses in the hallway. Whatever the case may have been, it had an effect on them. While our girls were too young to remember what happened, Oliver was not, and my prayer is that he'll never forget how God protected us.
We still have a long way to go, but God is holding our hands.
And He is good, all the time.
Even in the midst of the storm.
Praise God from whom ALL blessings flow.