I’ve done it a million times. Literally, for ten years, I have been the one to sweep the office, corralling people into our safe areas when a tornado warning was announced. I’ve been the one to quietly insist that they stop whatever they’re doing, because nothing is THAT important, and I usher them into the room with a blue stripe around the top. After I’ve made sure everyone is safe, I’ve snuck back to my desk to continue my work. Whatever I was doing. Because it was that important.
But after we were awakened to tornado sirens at 5:45 that morning, I felt like I shouldn’t go back to my desk.
We all sat in there, hot and frustrated, as we all sat around one laptop screen. At first, we were typically jovial and dismissive. We smiled and laughed about how everyone always freaks out about the weather. About how all of this is always a firedrill.
Then the lights flickered.
We watched as the laptop showed us pictures of down the street — pictures of tornados touching down, winding down the streets. We realized that this was different. Calls starting coming in to panicked spouses — calls of damage. Property torn apart. Swingsets uprooted. Roofs pulled off. The panic began to set in.
The school systems -which had delayed school starting due to the severe weather – had a badly timed dismissal, putting parents on the roads in a hurry to pick up kids as more sirens blared. Hail fell and there was panic everywhere. Bryan was lucky enough to be out and about and able to pick up Tony and I hauled ass home.
We stayed glued to Twitter and the radio as we lost our satellite. Our lights stayed up until 9:00 p.m., but then it went dark. Totally dark. Nothing came back on. We lit candles, made impromptu night-lite arrangements, and went to bed. We imagined the lights would be back on in the morning.
They always are.
Tony woke up at 5:45 a.m. in a panic. Everything was dark and that was different. He had no green light to look for. He had no any light to look for. He crawled in and we waited for the sun to rise.
When we moved to the living room and began our usual morning ritual of fruit snacks and juice, we turned on the radio. And that’s when the realization hit.
This was not like always. This was a disaster.
We heard stories of disaster that I’ve never heard before. Entire blocks leveled. Entire families killed, trying to hold on to eachother in winds of excess of 175 mph. Pianos toppling over. So many people dead. So many children. Entire communities destroyed.
We looked at eachother. We immediately called Jack’s house, any house associated with him, and there was no cell reception. There was no 3G, Edge, or even GSM. Nothing. We were in a blackout. We were in a disaster.
There was not a cloud in the sky. Blue skies as far as you could see, with a cool breeze sweeping across the grasses. People went outside, met their neighbors for the first time, walked their dogs, played with their kids. Our town was fortunate: little to no property damage, no loss of life. The outlying counties — the ones were Jack lives — were not so lucky. We tried to dial all day in between dog-walks and frisbee games. No luck.
Bryan, unable to sit still with the not-knowing, went to a neighborhood grocery store. Most neighborhood grocery stores were open, working from cash or checks and selling what they could. He waited in line for two hours. He helped one lady back to her car after she fainted. Everyone was orderly, he said. Everyone pulled together.
Stores began to open on emergency power, but the panic was on the edge. Rumors of gas shortages began to circulate, as did rumors of looting after dark. There was immediately a curfew put on the entire region: no one was to be out between dusk and dawn. Some complained, but most understood.
On Friday, the not-knowing about Jack had driven us to a breaking point, and Bryan went on a hunt for gas. By then we learned that the entire Tennessee Valley Authority power plant had been taken offline and we were hearing predictions of power outtages of 5-7 days before the MAIN system came back online. That meant even longer for residential areas.
We also knew that the death toll was over 150.
We had very little idea of the big picture — we still had no cell service and we only knew what we had heard in rumor. To the credit of the local media, all operational studios opened their lines without screening to local callers. To the credit of our community, the calls poured in with aid. People, individuals who did still have power, offered their personal homes to those in need. Offered to cook for those they’d never met. Offered hot showers to those who needed them.
I kid you not that I’m crying as I type this.
As someone who watched Katrina happen, this is something I did not expect. I’ve watched communities turn cannibalistic on eachother, and ours DID NOT. We opened our homes, our pantries, and our hearts to eachother. Callers called in with questions and needs, and more callers called in with answers and promises of aid. I have never been so proud. Never.
Bryan found gas after three different stations and two hours. Price gouging was happening, but he was lucky enough to happen upon an honest gas station and got a full tank. We made a choice that not all of our family agreed with; we chose to head north to pick up Jack and then leave.
We headed to Chattanooga.
I don’t know. I didn’t know the full story until we got away, didn’t realize the massive death toll, the huge amount of distruction. I’m working on borrowed internet time now so I don’t have time to link to the full devastation. I know that we went for 48 hours without knowing the status of some of our immediate family members, but we had a happy ending. I know that when we got to Jack, his face was somber and his eyes were tired. And though we’ve been judged by some for leaving, I have a picture of a Jack that has dead eyes and I know we made the right choice.
But it isn’t over yet.
We head back tomorrow, and we are stopping at the closest full-powered town and stocking up on as much as our SUV will hold. We are dropping water, diapers, wipes, and other perishables off at local relief points. We are stopping in with friends to drop off what they need. And I’ve been working my ass of in social media to make sure the relief effort is wide-spread.
YOU CAN HELP.
If you’re reading this in a feed-reader, please share this.
If you’re on Twitter, please retweet this information.
If you’re on Facebook, make this your status.
You can help by texting “REDCROSS” to 90999. That will donate $10 to the Red Cross and the Alabama Relief Efforts. We currently have close to 600 people displaced from the storms. Our county alone has over 300 houses that were destroyed or declared inhabitable. And that county was not even declared a disaster area.
$10 will help provide water and shelter to families in my area. These are the people who are now giving their own food away to help.
I don’t ask for donations or help often, because I believe people should give where they feel their heart leads them.
I am asking your heart to lead you to my state.