Tornado on the Ground: Tuscaloosa April 27, 2011


Spring had started out gorgeous, until this happened . . .

Dedicated to the people of Alabama; all others affected by disasters; and to those who were lost in the storm.

The kindness and generosity of family, friends, and strangers goes beyond my capacity to praise in paltry words. The swell of gratitude in my heart exceeds all powers of expression.

The night before, I saw a sweet little tree frog on our glass front door in the country.

This is the story I never wanted to write. But it has knocked almost every other preoccupation out of my mind.

The day’s storms really started around five am, when we were awakened by a high wind and a long series of rapid thunder cracks sequenced like machine gun fire. We grabbed various helmets for head protection and went to the strongest part of the house. Once the storm noise faded, we went back to bed to get rest for the predicted rough day. TV weather maps with radar images, (we still had our power), along with a ‘feel’ gained from years of severe weather alerts, guided us. We knew that whatever had happened, it was over for our locale, for that instant. We heard later that the train had been stopped by downed trees somewhere. We wouldn’t know until about a week later that the storm we heard included an EF3 tornado that touched down in a community only a few miles down the road. Later we learned that five people were killed in Alabama during this early morning outbreak.

Weather personnel never know until the last minute exactly when and where tornadoes will form and exactly where they will go; they can only say conditions will be favorable for severe weather. As the storms draw closer, the tracks can be narrowed down, but specific pinpointing usually occurs at the last minute. Bill had an uneasy feeling later that day when he went into Tuscaloosa to care for my elderly Mom and then went to the store before the afternoon storminess was due. He could feel something wrong in the ways the winds were gusting around. We’ve had close calls when twisters tracked near us, but we’ve never been hit. We’ve been through hundreds of weather alerts and nothing ever comes really close, and somehow we didn’t really expect it.

But that day Bill felt he detected something menacing and he came back to get me and took me into town, an unplanned trip. This was hasty and difficult due to my medical condition. There was no time to take our two cats with us as we always had when fleeing storms. We arrived at my Mom’s house in the Forest Lake neighborhood about 4:30 in the afternoon. The sky was heavily overcast but the weather was strangely calm at that time. Mom and I sat in the living room, waiting, while Bill made further preparations. Soon radio and TV announcers said that a major storm with a probable tornado was headed our way. Right after the weathercaster said a tornado was tracking towards downtown Tuscaloosa, Bill began to get us into the bathroom, over Mom’s objections. I entered while he set Mom up with an emergency oxygen tank. The cats knew, and were running under beds to hide; the one cat Bill was able to nab and hand to Mom wriggled out of her grasp and ran again. There just wasn’t time to chase the three of them down at that point. Bill had a rescued dog living in Mom’s fenced yard with a heated garage and a specially built “pup-tent”, but there was no time to get this unruly stray into the house. Just before he came into the bathroom, Bill saw the tornado, picked up by the town’s tower cam and displayed on TV, and heard the meteorologist say that it was crossing Highway 359. It would be weeks later before he told me this. The tornado siren was wailing, and that roar, which really did sound like a freight train, increasing. We’d all put on our headgear, old motorcycle helmets for Mom and me, worker’s hard hat for Bill. He had earlier grabbed a mattress off the bed, and now he hoisted it over our heads and closed the door to the bathroom. “It’s right on top of us,” he said. At that point I had trouble getting my breath, caused by the changing air pressures. The approaching monster pulled the moist, warm air away and into itself to use for fuel. The water in the bathtub drain began to gurgle. We heard the roar come closer, stop, and I recall a kind of quiet, breathy whomp, which Bill later described as “like a truck hitting the house”; then glass breaking, thudding noises. We truly thought we might die, but I was remaining outwardly calm because my mother looked tensed and distraught. At some time within the fear and the talks beginning “If we don’t make it…” the siren stopped and the overhead light went out as the tornado smashed the town’s electrical equipment. Something knocked the bathroom door open; Bill saw sky through the trapdoor to the attic, newly blown open, and realized that the roof was gone. With the bathroom door open, a shower of debris pelted the top of the mattress.

After an eternity lasting moments, the bumping noises stopped and the roar-howl gradually faded leaving only a steady rushing windy sound. It was over, on our block anyway, although we hesitated, dazed and uncertain, as that sank in. I said we were fortunate, because I knew we had just lived through something serious. We heard shouts outside.

Bill told us to stay where we were while he went out to help wherever needed. We heard someone calling, “Are you all right?” Groups of students from the neighborhood were going around shouting into every home to offer help, or into the heaps that were left. I don’t mean to sound ‘flip’ by saying heaps; we who are living with the reality of this are using frank descriptors. Due to the chronic medical condition, every action is strenuous for me and I got worn out shouting that we were OK at least four times. Bless their hearts for helping others! They got an injured man out from under his shattered, collapsed house before emergency crews arrived – streets were blocked by fallen trees and power lines; vast parts of the city had been flattened. Bill walked around with the students and crawled under a pile of wind-ripped fragments that had been a store, looking for the sales personnel. Fortunately the store had closed early and everyone was safe elsewhere. We heard later that someone on Mom’s block had been trapped in rubble for an hour and a half. His shouts for help weren’t heard by the street rescuers walking by, and his cell phone calls didn’t go through. He was finally able to call someone and get help. When the first responders came, they asked what street they were on because nothing was recognizable. Almost every tall tree on the entire block went down, along with all street signs. Every structure was torn somewhere and many were pulverized. I found all that out later.

Bill came back in briefly with the dog. Her yard was now unfenced and she was found down the block where the neighbors were trying to catch her. She was hesitant to go to them, but ran to Bill immediately when he walked up. He secured her in the living room and went out again.

I think I already knew how serious this was even before I saw the damage. After a long time, Bill had not come back so I left the bathroom. The walls in this front part of the house had held, and the ceiling was intact, but a quick glance back through the kitchen told me the back addition to the house had been smashed apart. As I walked towards the front door I crunched glass on every square inch of the floor; every window had shattered into flying sprays of the stuff. Two heavy pieces of furniture, a couch and a coffee table with a stone slab for a top, had been blown from the living room where we’d been sitting moments before, about 20 feet, to land outside the bathroom door. Being hit by these, or being thrown with them, would have resulted in death or severe injury. There is no doubt that last minute precision weather forecasts and my husband’s wise reactions to them saved our lives. I took a broken wooden art piece (ironically a ‘wind-toy’ sculpture) off the dining room floor and placed it on the table, and re-hung a picture that had fallen, almost reflexively, as though a little bit of re-arranging was all that was needed to put things right again. In the living room an art print I’d done had been released when its frame was broken. When I stepped outside and tried to look up the block, my view was obscured by a house-high pile of downed pecan and mimosa trees from the adjoining lot. At ground level everywhere, all I saw were branches, treetops. While the walls had stood in the solidly built older part of Mom’s house, in the back addition, the ceiling and part of the back wall blew out, the sides caved, and were now tilted. One wall was being held up only by a piece of furniture underneath it. A really heavy wooden table from the living room was pulled out of the side window. The base was found in the yard outside the house, the tabletop took off for parts unknown.

Mom wasn’t visibly injured, but there was no power in the house, no water, and she needed 24 hour oxygen. Her reserve oxygen tank had another few hours’ worth in it but we knew that most of the town’s electricity was probably off, and she would need it for the O2 concentrator once the tank ran out. The only place to take her was the hospital, but the roads into the neighborhood were obstructed by debris. One of the students helped us find her purse. Then a group of them carried my Mom out of the house in a chair, taking her several blocks to a larger street to a pickup truck parked outside the blocked area. They took her to the hospital riding in the truck bed. I walked alongside through the house as they carried her. “We’re blessed, we lived through this,” I said, trying to divert her attention from the damage to her home. Because of my own illness I could go no further with her, but had to stay, help Bill secure the house and animals, and try to get home.

The police wanted everyone out fast, so we had to grab what we could and walk out. Bill found a cat carrier tossed into the back yard, located two of the cats and put both into it together. He intended to put the third cat, Tiger, in there too. He entered the destroyed back part of the house despite the danger, and finding Tiger under a bed, reached out and touched his fur. Tiger, a former feral, began to run. Bill removed the bed, but Tiger had vanished. It’s likely he ran out of the house. He was no doubt really scared by having the room come apart around him. Bill tried to find him but could not. A fireman then arrived to escort us out. I’m not bitter towards the police or authorities because they were worried about gas leaks and we kept hearing that there was another tornado coming – it turned out there wasn’t. I am heartbroken that we had to leave Tiger.

The roads weren’t clear, and our car wouldn’t have been usable anyway – it had been tumbled down the street and crumpled like a tin can. I can’t walk far so the fireman helped me along while Bill toted the carrier box with the two cats in one hand and held the dog by the leash in the other. I rode partway in a fire department vehicle that must have had to thread its way through piles of rubble and over a sidewalk somewhere to get into the block. At the larger street I was let out and I caught back up with Bill. With a stiff wind still blowing, under an ashy blue-gray sky, we joined hundreds of others walking down the street that I knew, but couldn’t recognize. We were directed to walk to shelters. We found a friend who also lived in the neighborhood; she and I hugged. Bill told the police I could not walk that far and one of them kindly drove us to a shelter. There were people with dogs on leashes, a girl carrying a kitten, and a group of young mothers with small children. One of these ladies very kindly showed me the way to the rest room, walking with me. We have people here whose kindness is boundless. All during this journey we heard rumors that another tornado was on the way. This turned out to be false. We didn’t have the battery powered radio we’d had in the house – we couldn’t carry it – but I don’t know if that would have helped clarify the forecast at that point, since so many places in Alabama had just been hit, including communications facilities.

The two cats in the carrier would normally be raising a squall but they were totally silent, still subdued by shock and fear from the storm. Usually when on a leash the dog wove serpentine lines in all directions and barked at other dogs but now she walked right at Bill’s feet and made no noise.

We weren’t sure we could get home. Bill’s cell phone calls failed a number of times. Finally he reached our neighbors in the country to see if our neighborhood was still there. It was, although without power, and a friend agreed to come get us. Our friend drove us by the hospital to attend to Mom, and while there I had to enter the Women’s Center to again use the restroom. An overworked nurse with a friendly but sad smile showed me the way. I asked if she’d been at the hospital during the tornado – she had. I asked her if she had heard from all her folks, if they were safe, and she nodded. People were sitting in the halls of this facility, some with dogs. I didn’t know at the time that the tornado had come close to the hospital, and that these were probably people taking refuge from destroyed homes. I was shaken and dazed and uncomprehending. I found out later that the enormous funnel was visible from the parking deck and just did miss the hospital, taking a turn at the last minute. Some hospital windows were cracked, and the power went out. The hospital treated about 1200 patients that evening, while having to ration out the electricity from their generators because they don’t produce as much current as the regular connections normally supply.

When we finally got on the road, we tried to stop for food at the first fast food place we found outside the power-free zone, but cars were lined up for blocks. Many couldn’t cook; others were fleeing the wreckage like we were. We drove on without stopping. It took forever to find a way home because roads were closed and traffic lights weren’t working. The tornado was about 5:13 in the afternoon and we weren’t home until eleven. The drive usually takes 15 minutes. Roads were closed due to downed trees and power lines, for emergency use, and to keep traffic away from the affected areas. Emergency workers were everywhere directing traffic, all the signal lights were out and the darkness along populated roads was sobering. Somewhere along the roundabout route we had to take to get home, I noticed men tending to some kind of huge storage tanks that must have been dislodged or knocked around.

I kept calm during the tornado and the long journey home that evening. Using a flashlight in the blackness, I set up food and water stations and litter boxes in the back of the house, and we let Mom’s two cats out of the carrier there, apart from our kitties. Over the years we have learned to move carefully when the lights are out, to keep from bumping into kitties. Bill quickly rigged a place for the dog to stay. I started going to pieces late that night, while trying to sleep in the profound dark. My heart started to pound as I listened to the emergency sirens all night. I only slept about two hours. Vehicle sirens continued all the next day.

That night and the day after, food was hard to come by because three fourths of Tuscaloosa and the surrounding communities were without power. I was astonished when our power at home, in this remote area, came back on the next day, remarkably fast considering the extent of the devastation in town. I quickly learned that there was also catastrophic damage from many tornadoes throughout Alabama, and some in other states.

Notes from the hit zone:

In the days immediately after there is still much chaos here. Cell phone service is sporadic. The tornado damaged two of the town’s water towers. We are advised to boil water because some contamination may have occurred when water facilities were repaired. We have all been given a large supply of bottled water by the volunteers on the streets. After a few days, the water alert was lifted. The people working in what Bill calls the “blast zone”, to recover personal items, to guard against looters, and to help clean up, need the bottled water because the city water is turned off in these neighborhoods.

The tornado took out some of the emergency departments’ stations and almost all their communications city wide. Amateur radio operators relayed emergency communications. (1. Reference: , also local news) Cell phone service remained off and on for days. The next day a neighbor drove Bill into town to a car rental place and still had to take the outer route, along the highway the tornado had crossed. Damaged cars were strewn everywhere along the roadsides. He still couldn’t drive directly into the neighborhood; he had to go in farther west and go around the lake, then wait while roads were cleared of trees and vehicles. Once in, he drove right by Mom’s house in the unrecognizable ruins. When he reached the house, three hours had gone by since he’d left home. Students and other young folks were all out again in the neighborhoods, handing out work gloves, tarps, beverages and boxed food, some home-cooked, as well as asking what they could do. Volunteers brought chainsaws and cleared the streets of blown down trees, the young folks and the church groups were out distributing supplies to persons trying to recover possessions and to relief workers still trying to find survivors in the rubble.

This is still going on as of Monday, May 2. Farmers and contractors are donating use of their equipment. Women stand on the medians of streets and walk over when you stop at the red light, say “You look hot”, and hand you a cup of sweet iced tea. Now, I know someone local likely made that tea, because down here we brew up a sweet liquid that would put honeybees to shame; but I don’t want to neglect to give a big shout out to the many kind people from other regions who have come here to help us! I don’t know about all of them but I know there are individuals from New York City here; Bill met one of them the other day. That goes out too, to the persons from other nations who are helping! Bill always takes whatever is offered because people sometimes act hurt if you refuse offers of help. A woman in Tennessee, where it had rained photos from households in Alabama, started a Facebook page, posting the photos so they could be reclaimed. I am so impressed by the swell of volunteerism! Volunteers are also feeding the huge number of displaced persons now in shelters, and collecting supplies for them. Bill returns to the car to find sacks of fruit and drinks on the door handle, and cases of food and bottled water in the trunk if he has left it open. This is done by people he never sees. A diverse group of people helped everyone right after the tornado, and along our arduous, anxious journey home. The TV news reported that Jesse Jackson came to Pratt City and said that he saw “Blacks and whites working together…Democrats and Republicans working together…” and that Birmingham was a different place than it used to be. Alabama communities have really come together in the face of disaster. (2. Source: local news and this link

May 6, and a coach brought his baseball team from a junior college in Mississippi, to help people, at no charge. They worked on the tangled mass of trees in the yard next to Mom’s, which had been Bill’s parents’ house. The parents of a student whose house was destroyed came back and threw a big block party; they barbecued all kinds of food, flagged down everyone, homeowners, volunteers, National Guard, to come eat, and presented Mothers’ Day bouquets to the ladies. A hand lettered sign set in front of wreckage we saw on the way read “God bless everyone for helping to fix my town.” Clothing is also being given away on the streets. Another week, and a guy from Texas who is on vacation used his bulldozer to clear debris from Mom’s yard, again at no charge. Bill says the students really stepped up, as much as we used to “dogcuss” them for being noisy, driving fast, and littering the streets. Bill and I witnessed the incredible surge of good will, with everyone pitching in, taking over this town. There were 10,000 formally registered volunteers and a good many who never registered. I want to give all due credit and love to those kind persons from other regions and nations who came to help. I must also state that, from the organizations listed in the media and social networking, the local buzz, and the direct statements of those who helped Bill, I feel it is reasonable to say the majority, or at least a substantial number, of the volunteers were from Alabama and the surrounding Southern region. I think there are good people everywhere and I’m not saying this to emphasize this region over any other. I’m speaking because some of my experiences convince me that at times people lose sight of the fact that there are good and enlightened people in the South. I’m saying this eight months later after reading some false comments on the web, by an individual who wasn’t here, saying people in Alabama didn’t come together after the tornado. That’s incorrect. We were here and we saw it. And when a tornado hit Joplin, Missouri on May 22, the Auburn, Alabama relief group “Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa” put truckloads of supplies for Joplin on the road that same night. If a comment goes the other way, I will also react and speak out. When I heard it implied that the South was the only place you’d see everyone pitching in to help each other, I pointed out that Bill had also been helped by people from New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Several days later, we haven’t found Tiger yet. Bill has been working at the house every day to salvage all he can, keeping an eye out for him. He is leaving cat food out, but it hasn’t been eaten. Neighbors down the block who are still living there, using generators for power, are also putting food out. Miraculously their house had minimal damage. Bill has alerted everyone working in the neighborhood, police, National Guard, volunteers, about Tiger and let them know he has left a carrier on the porch should they find him.

Unfortunately the large numbers of people in the streets, the noise of the chainsaws, have probably frightened him into hiding. I am sick with worry and heartache about Tiger every night. As a former feral, Tiger is not likely to approach anyone. I have to believe he will be found.

We are alive and uninjured, and others are not. There are some things that were lost in my mother’s house, but we are fortunate compared to those who lost everything they had. I am glad to be alive, and heartsick about Tiger. I should rejoice more than I am at being safe but I think I have some kind of post and pre-traumatic stress disorder. The “pre” is in anticipation and dread of the next one. I feel guilty about the lingering fogheaded dwelling-on-it feeling I have, but I just don’t feel safe. We were fortunate, we are alive, we had a place to go, and we had insurance. Many have died, many homes and businesses are totally rubble, and many renters and people without insurance now have nothing.

It’s been noted by locals that if you live here it is hard to think of anything else right now. People report that they have difficulties concentrating. That’s part of my illness anyway, but it’s worse now. A friend who’s a member of the counseling profession told us this is natural, and he would be worried about us if we weren’t experiencing symptoms. I’m also having sleeplessness, nightmares, and a pointless feeling. Many are experiencing this and free counseling is available. We’ve had no rain lately, thankfully. But when the sky darkened one afternoon, everyone became uneasy and anxious.

Skipping ahead to May 11: Bill had an astonishing experience, one of the many outpourings of good will we’ve seen. At the house site, he heard someone call from the road, “Anyone need help?” It was three young guys from New Jersey, who had driven 17 hours to get here! They were college students who had graduated one day and left the following day to come here. One of them had quit his job to make the trip. Bill has had multiple opportunities lately for his favorite pastime, talking. He has a way of striking up an instant rapport with people. The first thing they want to know is, “Were you in it?” and then, “Does it really sound like a freight train?” They helped him move some furniture, and took some videos of the damage. Bill gave them a guitar that survived the tornado and a t-shirt with a design by a local artist. Next week, they will meet Bill to go to one of the town’s best barbecue restaurants. As they left, they asked directions to one of the hardest hit rural areas.

This kind of encounter with young people, and the news of a teenager who helped get an elderly neighbor out of the rubble, give me hope for the future.

The tornado scoured a wide swath through the town I have called my home for about 45 years. I did not go back for a week. Bill was too busy trying to clear out Mom’s house.

The neighborhood where my Mom used to live is so devoid of any identifying landmarks that relief workers, police who used to patrol there, and even long time residents, still get lost. The oaks and pines and pecans and magnolias and mimosas are there, on the ground or broken off midway up the trunks; other trees are standing leafless and twisted against the sky; my Mom’s cherry trees were pulled up by the wind and lie knocked over with the roots exposed. There’s no shade; sunglare fills the landscape. Wednesday, May 4th, I went back. There are fewer volunteers on the streets now. The silence is stark and disturbing in a neighborhood that used to be full of the noises of people and pets. In the yard of the house next to Mom’s there’s the same impassable tangle of fallen canopy. There’s at least one trunk from a tree that came from several backyards farther down the block. The two story shed garage in back of her house is in ruins. It’s as if the walls had been slapped right out from under the roof, which then fell straight down to rest on the ground amidst fragments of its own walls. The dog survived this by some miracle. The blown out back room and ceiling rest jumbled in the back yard. I barely recognize the ceiling fan, all mangled and crammed in amidst the shreds. It’s a relief when another neighbor still living there comes along, walking his dog. It feels almost like a normal moment, but now the two make their way through piles of debris, some house-high. Note to Hollywood: anyone making an end-of-the-world, apocalypse type movie, come now for on location, authentic-style backdrops. I’m serious.

Bill made a poster out of Tiger photos, and he went to the shelter today, Thursday, May 5. He thought he’d found Tiger but then noted the cat he saw was from an area 25 miles away. Nevertheless he came out to the country to get me and took me there so I could look at the cat too, because in the chaos affecting everything in town, the origin could be an error. However, it wasn’t Tiger, I was fairly certain. He was friendly to the shelter workers while Tiger hides when company comes. I told the cat I hoped he found his people and left in tears. I wanted to find Tiger, and I wanted to take that sweet Tiger lookalike home too. But he probably belongs to someone. We will check back again. May 6 and we had six Tiger sightings reported in Mom’s neighborhood. He seems to be living under a porch and Bill has set a safe box trap for him. Tiger is a former feral who was living on that block before Mom took him in. I believe he would have gone for cover when he ran from the house, hiding from the noise and activity, coming out only at night. It will take time, but I think we will get him back. Neighbors who were feeding ferals they could pet before the tornado, can no longer pet those cats. They are all spooked and we’ll have to win Tiger’s confidence again. Visually it is not the same neighborhood and it’s hard to know where you are from sight. I hope Tiger will know it from scent, feel at home, and stay. The smashed trees have added the smell of fresh-broken wood. The police guarding the block have been really helpful about Tiger, and continue to phone us with Tiger sightings.

At home, I pull a tuft of fiberglass insulation out of a bouquet of artificial flowers Bill has retrieved from the crumpled, debris spattered back room. It’s everywhere, ripped out of the town’s broken walls. I want it gone, trashed, quickly. My house is filling up with Mom’s belongings piece by piece, her home’s essence, now covered with a fine coating of specks carried in by the wind.

We heard that Congress was trying to cut funding for weather forecasting like the kind of pinpoint coverage that saved our lives and many others that day. Schools and businesses were closed because of those alerts. Some schools and businesses were totally destroyed, so lives were saved because they knew in advance it would be a rough day. I did not hear further about whether those budget cuts occurred or not, but I hope forecasting continues to be fully funded.

Final tally (at that time) was 43 dead, over a thousand injured, in this one town. 7000 dwellings destroyed. Update, September 2011: 51 is now the number killed. Some died later due to pre-existing health problems aggravated by tornado injury and/or stress.

Mom’s house was built in the 1940’s. The older section has double walls, cinderblock within, brick veneer. It stood. The back addition was built with stud walls, two by fours. That section came apart. But, I have seen plenty of tornado damage with cinder blocks and bricks strewn around. I don’t think anyone knows exactly how tornadoes work, so I can’t say if it was the wind dynamics or the house construction. I can say that the house next door was also old and built with a double wall, no stone, but heavy wooden planks, and in some areas the planks were laid diagonally. Those walls also stood, although one of them is knocked out of its correct position, while the roof went off and the windows shattered. They don’t build ‘em like they used to. In the shattered back of Mom’s house, the bathroom is standing. Bill says that the older bathrooms were built with an especially strong technique that is not used today.

Some other houses on the block were partially destroyed. Down the street, a house blew off a slab foundation; another house built on a slab was still standing, although damaged. There were other curious variations – in two instances I recall, one end of a house was shattered and the rest was standing. It’s as if another house in front of it in the line of windblow took the hit and shielded part of the next house behind it. Looking at the damage from house to house, I see this pattern frequently. The storm moved from southwest to northeast and after part of it crossed the empty space over the lake, almost all of the houses on the eastern shore of the lake were shredded and flattened. It’s not possible to know all the exact whys and wherefores, but I will hazard a guess that the lack of resistance increased the storm strength. It would take learned analysis of wind current directions to establish this with certainty, of course. Another guess I will make is that better construction accounts for the durability shown by some structures.

Bill has since learned from tornado scientists on National Public Radio that there are differing pockets with varying velocities within tornadoes. You might have an area of 200 mph winds next to one with 50 mph winds. As he puts it, “Within the vortex, it’s like a mess of worms going at different speeds”. It really is tricky to say why one structure stands and another doesn’t. I do think, though, that there’s truth to what Bill has always said, being in the forest is safer because the tree density takes some of the force out of the wind and it therefore dissipates. I see that having many structures and trees on the block taking wind hits meant that not every part of every house took the full wind force. Within one structure, some of it might be standing, when shielded behind the next smashed building, while other sections were pulverized. This meant more survivors.

On May 7: We see aerial photos showing the tornado path. Bill has circled our location. It is directly adjacent to the path of greatest destruction, where almost everything was leveled. So if you were in the hardest hit places, it’s possible no kind of strong construction would have made a difference. Maybe being in an underground storm cellar or a reinforced safe room would have helped in the zone of greatest intensity. I was trying to tell myself that Mom’s house is worth rebuilding (should the inspectors determine that it can be), restoring the roof because the walls withstood an F4 or F5. I suppose it’s worth something that they withstood the “lesser” winds on the periphery of the worst part of the storm.

Maybe I’m trying to make sense out of something nonsensical. A tornado could be seen as a ‘blizzard of odds’, like a careening mass of unalike flakes whose hideous possibilities cannot be calculated or wagered.

However, with 7000 homes and 500 businesses damaged in this town, it’s a miracle so many survived. I heard some were saved by underground storm shelters. Others went to the neighbors’ houses with basements. But the old advice to go to the smallest room/bathroom, centrally located and with as many walls as possible between you and the outside, also saved many. For example I’ve only heard of one house on Mom’s block that has a basement, yet the street was full of the survivors who helped rescue everyone else after the storm. There is no doubt that better, storm-resistant, construction techniques for all housing should be used in the future. Best case scenario, underground storm shelters should be built for all apartment buildings, trailer parks, housing developments, and individual homes. I’ve heard stories of people in underground shelters having to lean against the doors to keep them from being blown open. There was a case of an indoor “safe room” being the only thing left standing; it was written about in a new article but I had to take that off as the link no longer works.

That room was still standing when everything else was leveled around it. Used as a closet, it was built with eight inch cinder blocks reinforced with steel rods that were then covered in concrete, and has a concrete ceiling. This is no doubt a safer option. A small interior room with no extra reinforcement is not a guarantee of safety.

The realization is horrifying as I’m driven by blocks and blocks obliterated to nondescript jumbles of torn up homes, stores, and restaurants, and I see the evidence from the photos. As harrowing and terrible as our own experience was, it could easily have been much worse. The local news features a story about a family in a rural area who were trapped under debris for three hours before emergency crews reached them.

When we hear of the funerals, it makes our hearts hurt for the dead and their families. “His girlfriend’s mother”, the photo of a child’s face who is now gone way too early in life, the young woman featured on the news who was lost in the storm, so much sadness to take in every day. Contacting all of our friends and acquaintances has been a slow process. When we meet for the first time post-tornado, we hug.

In recent years most severe storms have gone to the north or the south of us. Sometimes storms that have caused tornadoes in states farther west have fizzled before reaching us. Our usual tornadoes are small and of short duration, rain-wrapped and usually hard to see. They do terrible damage but the area is small. The wedge sometimes goes up into the sky and back down, repeatedly,as they travel, skipping some neighborhoods while they are up in the air, then coming down to devastate others. We’ve had twisters come close to both our houses, oddly clustered in the same general areas. I have been straining to see a pattern in that, feeling they wouldn’t hit us. Wrong thinking! There are things I would do differently now. This tornado was an anomaly in every way, proof that the unusual can occur and you should always be prepared for anything. It was an enormous, long track tornado ranging from one half to one mile wide as it went, and easily seen; in fact there are several videos of it. It stayed on the ground all the way from somewhere in western Alabama to Asheville, North Carolina, according to what I’ve heard. There wasn’t much rain with it in our exact location.

We have some of the world’s finest people here, with many friends and strangers helping us and others who were hit. We have been the recipients of more kind acts than we can ever repay. Bill has always been a person quick to share his skills with those who need them. So perhaps it’s coming back to him. I have asked him not to use the expression, “What goes around comes around.” I have to laugh sometimes. It helps, and it made my Mom laugh too. Bill put “Tuscaloosa Thanks America” on his back windshield after seeing a similar message on another car.

It also helps to write about the experience. Posting the initial draft on a forum makes me feel I may help people understand that they need to take these storms seriously. I use the title “Filthy, Stinking, Rotten Tornadoes” to express helplessness. You can insult the storms all day long and it won’t change anything.

We also have cruddy looters, and the National Guard is protecting the devastated neighborhoods. The looters are taking personal items from people who have lost everything. In one rural neighborhood residents had to stand guard for several nights before the National Guard got there to help. A relief station in a shopping center parking lot was forced to close after being looted overnight. A huge mountain of bottled water was taken, all the food, and a large part of the clothing. This is likely the work of organized criminals and may not be of local origin. It would have taken really large trucks to move that much bulk.

Later, the animal shelter was robbed of donated materials. Disaster brings out so many persons of good will, but also those low-lifes who take advantage of them.

We are fortunate to be alive, but the aftermath of the storm is labor intensive for a household already strained to the max. I think when the volunteers and the friends all leave, and we are alone with the desolation, with more time to think, we’ll have another wave of shocked responses. I don’t think there’s a route we can drive into town and not go by the smashed ruins somewhere, along with the tree remnants, the shortened trunks with a branch or two or three left and not a leaf on any of them. My ever-optimistic mother already doesn’t think this will ever happen to us again. That’s what I thought the first time.

This place is my home and it is the only home I know. I have friendships here going back decades. Yet I don’t feel safe, and yearn to move. I’m not the only one. There’s lots of local discussion about moving, and how you can drive away from hurricanes. So Florida seems a likely place. Bill, however, won’t hear of this. He wants to build a tornado-safe house. He’s even considered one partially underground, built into a hillside. I’m not sure about this. Will bats want a part of our space? Those tornado-safe structures sound better to me, either above or below ground. But sigh, I don’t see how any house building can happen for us any time soon.

On another day of impending storms, with a slight chance of severe according to the forecast, I step out to get the mail before the storms come. The leaves start to rustle and a few raindrops fly and I freeze with fear. Then I look at the patterns of movement in the canopy. I’ve lived here a long time, and I know very well the jerky and loopy branch motions when there’s a seriously wrong wind nearby. These winds are OK. It has also cooled down considerably already, another good sign. So I continue down the road. I will know when to panic, next time. But I’m forever changed. The tornado has loosened that intrinsic ‘safe’ and calm feeling that we all take for granted as we go about our days. It has taken about a month for any more rainstorms to show up. As the sky clouds and darkens, waves of anxiety go through the local social media. Not long after, the local meteorologists determine that the current tornado season is over in our area. I think if I had to go through another alert at this time, my heart would crumble to dust.

Every time I visit the scene of Mom’s old house it’s a peculiar feeling. I call Tiger in the twilight and he doesn’t come. The sky is vacant of tall treetops and houses, and I can see down to Forest Lake now. I never knew we were so close to it! There’s little traffic and few people. It’s the loneliest feeling in the world.

I think something could be learned by examining what is standing there and what isn’t. A house built of “oversized” bricks, which Bill says have four inches of bonding area as opposed to the two inches of regular bricks, stands in a place where everything else was leveled. An old bathroom built the old way stands, too. To my knowledge no one studied the ruins for clues as to what happened. My continuing preoccupation with the storm is a tool for knowing; I think more study is the only way we’re going to know how to build for future storms. The cleanup has to move too fast for long reflection. Unable to assist with it due to illness, I’m the one who sits and looks. I think I am learning from that as I try to puzzle out what kind of wind gusts went where, and what stood. After living in Tuscaloosa for forty plus years while many smaller tornadoes came through town, and one other F4, one might ask wonder why I have not seen and surmised more earlier. The answer is that the authorities always kept everyone away from the damage except the assisting personnel and property owners, until things were cleaned up. This time we’re the ones affected, and the damage is so widespread and so enormous, so slow to be cleared, that after the first few months anyone in town can still drive through the storm path that displays much of the damage.

On July 2nd I go to town and go into the house for the first time since the storm. The inside is still scrambled and dusty and dark, with no electricity. I have to run by wasps who are trying to build a nest in the door frame. I don’t have much time, since we soon get a knock on the door by two students from Boston touring the tornado zones, photojournalists who want to record Bill’s story and do a piece on the storm. They’re nice young folks and we figure, it can’t hurt to get the word out. Things still aren’t fixed here. After meeting them I walk back between the two houses and then to the opening that goes to space under one of them. I call out “Tiger Tiger, I know you are hiding there.” We don’t have time today to wait until twilight, when the cats are coming out of hiding.

One day I want to ride the entire path of the tornado, on out to Holt. It’s something I feel compelled to do. Today we only have time for part of it. Bill starts us out at the place the funnel came down, then shows me where it crossed Highway 359. There is a water tower near there, now visible from far away since the wide destroyed path has no tall trees or buildings blocking the view. Twisting and turning along the roads, it takes a long time to traverse the blocks between there and Mom’s house. But when we reach the house we can still see the water tower, and it’s a ways off but not that far as the crow flies or as the tornado scours. We were within minutes of being hit when we made it into the bathroom. A close call. I feel a chill on a scorcher of a day, and again, I don’t sleep that night.

What I didn’t anticipate, what I’m going, “Well duh” on myself about, is what happens when the walls stand and the wind breaks the windows and enters the house at high speeds. I’ve never seen this discussed, although I never went to the severe weather safety meetings put on by the local weathercasters. I was used to seeing photos of crumbled walls and never thought along any other lines. As we saw, the stuff in the rooms was thrown and smashed and jumbled. Glass on framed pictures was shattered and blown around. A massive piece of furniture was pulled out the window. The same thing was true of the car, where the wind broke the windows, entered, tossed some things inside around, yanked others out. So being away from windows is as important as they say.

We’ve been very harried but did manage to drive around a little looking for Tiger. Some neighbors on the end of the block have seen a striped cat who’s very shy, living in the interior of the block. They are going to get a photo, and then we’ll see if we should set humane traps there. They have cats and we don’t want to catch theirs repeatedly if this is a different cat. We sat there in the car at twilight watching for a long time. It’s very desolate, trees branches are smashed up, twisted, and bare against the horizon, everything’s much flatter, the way I used to imagine a “blasted heath” would look. The storm took the forest out of Forest Lake. We speculated about living there again. Is it just too creepy? It’ll be perfect come Halloween, I said.

There are other cats we’ve seen. At Mom’s house, we still put food out, and a small feral runs from me every time I walk back there. A gray cat with at least one white foot. Behind a house still standing a block away, we keep seeing a black cat who also ran from us, a dark and solid cat shape against the shifty twilight. I’ve never felt so helpless about aiding them, with so many urgent tasks crying out for our attention. I did see another cat that might be Tiger. As Bill walked across the street to leave food on its porch, eyes down to watch the road for nails underfoot, a movement caught my eye as I watched from the car. A cat that may have been striped flashed around the edge of the house and vanished. We walked over there but finding the animal was hopeless, there are multiple hiding places and no one living there to notice when cats happen to show themselves.

We’ve never seen the black cat or the gray cat before, or a striped cat across the street. We knew the people in the house and they had no cats. The cats all got themselves new turf, and I think I’ve figured out why. Every cat who could ran that day from the growling winds and the loud bangs around them, until the noise stopped and the crazy air currents stopped troubling their whiskers. Each one got a lot of gone between their selves and their individual hit zones, and they will not go back to the old scary turf. They have no way of knowing that their new quiet digs were under the same beast of a wind. So it makes sense that Tiger has gone to live in the interior of the block farther down, away from our house that came shrieking apart and the noise that was in the streets. He may be laughing at us “Can’t catch me, ha ha.” I still hope we’ll find him eventually. The TV news had a story of a cat making it home 75 days after the tornado! Then I heard about another cat coming home recently.

It has been necessary for Bill to be at the house site every day since the tornado, to clean up, give volunteers permission to go onto the property and help, discourage looters, assist others, and to continue to look for Tiger. Every day he’s gotten a multitude of phone calls, and had to add a mountain of tasks to his schedule. He has also had to find a place for Mom when she got out of the hospital, care for her, and attend to her subsequent hospitalizations and rehab stays to ensure she gets the best of care. All this while also caring for me with my own medical needs and greatly reduced ability to accomplish daily living tasks. It has been overwhelming.

September 22, 2011

Once the repairs begin, Bill assists the crew at first, then decides he will do much of the work himself.

This is so not over. It comes up in conversation daily. It comes up in nightmares and unpleasant dreams reported by many. And in memories of a friend’s heroism. For some reason, he was out driving that day. He had to floor it to get out of the path. Once he was safely away, he turned back towards the area the tornado had just traveled until he got to the destruction, and he helped pull people out of the rubble. Friends who were in a store just outside the strike zone report that they felt the building vibrate when the storm went by.

It has been hard to find crews to work on Mom’s house. Tarps began to leak and were redone once. When Tropical Storm Lee dropped about five inches of rain on us, Bill had to spend 18 hour days sopping up the water and covering the floors with tarps. He saved the floors but the ceilings were ruined. Later he would realize that having to take out the ceilings has weakened the house. The work has now begun. It reveals evidence of the freakish power of the storm. About two feet from the ground in the foundation, a wall of brick veneer over a wall of cinderblock, a projectile knocked a hole in the brick “like a cannonball” Bill says. Behind that, a block has been knocked away under the house. He can’t find the object that did it.

There are nails and shards of glass embedded in an interior living room wall across from a window, driven there by the invader wind. Mud is spattered all over. I’ve actually sat in front of windows in the past during tornado alerts. Seeing how projectiles and heavy furniture were hurled through our rooms, I can’t underline this enough. “Stay away from the windows, with as many walls as possible between you and the outside”, that’s good advice.

The bathroom in the wrecked back of the house was built before the 1980’s, so it has that extra strength of solid two-inch thick ‘mud-wall’ construction. With the roof off, the bathroom as a whole had been pulled up by wind suction two inches off the foundation, and storm debris – the mix of dirt, chopped up leaves, and whoknowswhatelse, had blown in underneath it. I had almost run into the back to that bathroom a few minutes before the tornado hit.

There was an old chimney within the attic and it was broken off in chunks when the roof was torn off in the storm. Bill shows me a photo of a large piece resting on a joist. If any of these pieces had come through the ceiling, we were close by below.

There’s been a widening spectrum of discoveries since April 27, 2011, about the possible ways tornadoes injure. When we examine the building from all angles, we see new refractions. Had we been less careful, we could have easily been in the living room, outside behind the house, or many other places. These dangers in my daily familiar surroundings are chilling might-have-been moments.

Known since right after the storm, down the street a big steel I-beam was found in a yard, the end driven into the ground.

Plant seeds or seedlings were also blown in. Lawns are now growing unplanted tomatoes, squash and watermelon vines of unknown origin. They weren’t there before the tornado. Strangely, each yard has a preponderance of a single plant type. Squash is the newcomer in ours. I figure they came from the town’s backyard gardens; it was about planting time in April.

One afternoon I was sitting in the car waiting for Bill, by the house. The sky was cloudy and the wind was up and the temperature was about the same as it was on April 27. It was so much like the day we had stepped out into the revised neighborhood after the storm. Many wrecked houses have now been torn down, there’s a scarcity of trees, and it’s an empty, flat, barren landscape. Few evening lights were coming on, the nights are darker now. Two flocks of grackles winged it quickly across the sky. That part was different. The birds were all hiding out on the tornado day. Immediately after the storm we rode the wave of good will and caring displayed daily by those who came to the neighborhoods. Now that they are gone, there’s a big fade to the hard part, the time when the feelings of emptiness return. It’s like after a funeral, when the guests all leave and the loneliness of loss sinks in.

From the high floors of the hospital at night, we can see the long skein of city lights on the horizon. Except it stops and there is mostly blackness of night sky over the tornado’s path, and then the lights resume, after a great distance.

As time goes by, more houses are torn down and the grass quickly fills in the vacant lots. The grackle flocks grow larger and rise in great capes of bright and black motion, flapping and landing. Large fields are what they like. The empty blocks feel really lonely. Now when the wind gets up at all, it howls through the neighborhood like it’s a moor in Yorkshire. Out in the forest the same winds aren’t nearly so fierce. After the tornado crossed the blank space over the nearby lake, it flattened all the houses on the shoreline. I hope more buildings go up soon. Otherwise the next twister that takes a similar path will tear right through the empty spaces and hit whatever’s there even harder.

There are survivors who couldn’t stand to see the homes they had known in the destroyed condition, and chose to sell rather than to repair. I can understand why. A loud thunderstorm on a warm night means cold fear now. The natural world was my refuge, and I’m lost now, upset with Mother Nature. A rainbow in June, over Mom’s ruined neighborhood, didn’t do much for me. “Too little, too late,” I wanted to address the sky. The other day I came across last spring’s photos, from before the tornado. Violets in the country, iris and spiderwort in my Mom’s yard in town. Pictures from when spring was beautiful, before it turned terrible. I’d forgotten I’d even taken them.

Nevertheless, I know we are fortunate to have survived, and to have had a place to go after the storm. So many didn’t, and there are still people homeless from this. I continue within a cascade of emotions, saying things that may repeat or conflict with prior statements; I also see this in other storm-hit persons. We feel all of these moments nonsensically and in no particular order.

Eventually we realize the house was hit at least twice, from the south at the front, spattering only the front outer wall with mud but not the sides, and tossing the furniture. From the north in the back the projectile went through the foundation in a direction opposite to the furniture trajectory. This suggests we were closer to storm center than we thought, because to do that the wind must have circled around. Or, the multiple current theory may account for this. It’s December when we say these things.

When the neighborhood lake is partly drained in October, it’s full of debris, wood and metal from smashed up houses, at least six curbside garbage carts, you name it. I’m told it all has an odor and there is talk of taking the mess to a toxic waste dump, once they get it out. Ducks and geese are still swimming around in the remaining water, and there’s even a dog swimming around, owners sitting on the shore – eeewwww . The worse it smells the better dogs like it, right? But I personally would prevent any pooches from indulging in that particular eau de gunk.

Much of the talk at October’s outdoor arts festival is still about the tornado.

Everything is still so busy. So although there are plans for it, I don’t think we will have our shelter in place before the next major tornado season. Our house in the country is aging and really isn’t skyworthy. I don’t think the shelter will be ready by next spring. A not unimportant part of tornado preparedness is making copies of my work and sending them to a friend who lives in (usually) non-tornado country. I’m far from completing that task.

I had thought that day would only mean we stayed by the TV with our flashlights until all the alerts were over, an inconvenience but basically, a breeze. We didn’t have time for me to really get used to the idea that we were actually going to be in one, this time, and I never did. It’s an instant world change. Bill was the last one into the bathroom just before we were hit. I didn’t know until long afterwards that he heard the weathercaster following the storm as it neared Tuscaloosa saying, “All we can do is pray for them, the only safe place is underground”. The gurgling in the bathtub drain, and the moments when I couldn’t breathe, were likely due to steep, sudden drops in air pressure followed by a rapid return to normal, Bill thinks. Tornado dirt was drawn into the vacuums created inside plastic wrappings on DVD cases and audiocassettes, and corks shot into wine bottles when they were opened after the storm. We think that the dusty air may have further compromised my Mom’s fragile lungs, and along with the stress from being in the tornado, contributed to the downturn she took after the storm. After surviving the tornado, her hospitalizations came more frequently afterwards. She rallied every time, but eventually, on October 6, 2011, she left this earthly life, about five months post-tornado. Those with chronic illness that were aggravated by the storm have been included on the victim list, and we are trying to get Mom’s name added.

The drops in pressure have indeed been recorded during tornadoes. They can happen during the approach and then during the actual hit. According to Dr. Tim Coleman in “Weather observations inside tornado”, the centrifugal force of rotation actually throws the air away from the center. The tornado vortex does this, as well as the mesocyclone, the larger rotating area within a storm, in which tornadoes can form. This outward force also propels some of the debris picked up the tornado out of the vortex.

October 27, 2011 marked six months after the storms. There were lengthy special news programs. There are still displaced people, whose benefits may run out soon. Those who had no insurance are having a hard time getting their places rebuilt; volunteers are still coming to help. There were 63 tornadoes confirmed in Alabama that day, with 690 miles of track; 252 people killed. An aerial photographer reported that the lens wouldn’t widen enough to take in all the destruction. In Tuscaloosa, 52 were killed, 1200 were treated at the hospital, and 12 per cent of the city was destroyed. 700 jobs were instantly gone. Tuscaloosa, and the state of Alabama, was one part of the outbreak of severe storms that day; that day alone was part of the huge outbreak over the entire spring season. The ER department at the hospital stated that the first victims all arrived not in ambulances but in the backs of pickup trucks driven by volunteers, the same way my Mom did. For Halloween, some tornado zone neighborhoods had to ask that trick-or-treaters go elsewhere. The remaining debris and the lack of streetlights, the scarcity of ambient light from houses, all of this made it hazardous.

It is November 9, 2011, when Bill has a realization. The entire roof went, but in the older part of the house, the rafters were torn off while the joists, and the ceiling underneath, stayed. The plaster ceiling and walls and the way the lathe attaches them to each joist within the cementing grip of the plaster is the key to the strength of that construction. It would be impossibly expensive to build that way these days. Newer isn’t always better. He is using hurricane straps on each new rafter and will take some extra steps for reinforcement, but it won’t be as sturdy as the house was pre-tornado.

The effect on the psyche appears to be lasting. I have been awed by so much kindness, but I have also felt an impossibility of ever really communicating the experience to those who weren’t in the storm. I know some feel I should be over it by now. Others, who weren’t in the tornado, don’t understand why we didn’t have everything shipshape after four months. I had to hold back hot words. I have what I call PTPD – Post Tornado Personality Disorder. My Mom also felt that she was more forthright with people. Some can’t watch the news coverage; others can’t drive anywhere near the zone that was hit, even now. Some survivors don’t even want to talk about it. I can understand why. I think we’ve undergone a deep change, forever. At first we were all so glad to be alive, with a renewed joy at being with our loved ones (except Tiger) and a sense of the triviality of the material things we lost. We were so impressed by all the caring we witnessed. Later a sense of dread set in, along with snappier, post-tornado personalities. Even my strongly religious Mom was badly shaken by losing her home, and said things I would have never expected. My sweet husband put up pictures from her house in her rooms, but it wasn’t the same. We are all these things, even when they reveal a tangle of conflict within. I do know that the stories from neighborhoods that were even harder hit than ours was, where the walls came apart and people died, are even more chilling than ours. I know we were fortunate. And there are those who are still homeless. We had our place to go.

Another program has aired about the tornado, in November, and it’s very hard to watch. There’s newly released footage right after the storm, and first responders speak about how in every neighborhood, neighbors traveled with them and helped get people out of the rubble; volunteers drove up with chainsaws, immediately. Those who lost loved ones speak, and it hurts us. We belong in this community of many origins, some in town and in state, some out of state, some from other nations. This is our town. I get overcome every time I see the list of the dead.

Trying to put the house and grounds back together has turned out to be labor intensive. Sometimes I wish we had just walked away, but that would have been letting the beast win, as well as making room for more condos as opposed to the single family homes I favor. We are in our secondary tornado season, November and December, at this time. Sometimes it doesn’t amount to much, but you can’t count on that. Region wide on November 16, it produced some tornadoes. In the forty-five years I’ve lived here, I’ve known it to produce one EF4 in town. On November 7, 2011, the local news told us there were tornadoes on the ground in Oklahoma. It chilled my blood. The front weakened before it got to us, but I just hate this for all who are in the path.

On Thanksgiving we go to the lake; the odor has improved. People in boats have removed some of the debris. Ducks and geese are floating around on rippling shadows as the sun begins to set. I hear a long repetitive call, part brassy honk, part raspy quack. It sounds commanding and I can only guess it means, “Y’all come on and let’s roost, dark’s coming.”

Bill puts cat food out at the house every day and something eats it overnight. The twilight appearance of a cat who gives Bill a searching look that feels like recognition, gives us hope Tiger is still out there. The cat runs when Bill approaches it, but not before he takes photos. They make me gasp when I see them. The shape of the face matches Tiger’s. So far the cat has not returned, but we have a glimmer of hope and won’t ever stop trying to find Tiger. The safe trap gets tripped a lot, with nothing caught. That’s probably squirrels and their cousins. The neighborhood strays are reported to be catching lots of those cousins. We aren’t hurting for rodents in this warm climate. Eeeewww, but it’s a good resource for the stray and feral cats. We haven’t seen Tiger again after that as of this writing, but we will never give up trying to find him. As a cat, he will take his own sweet time about things, including coming back to us.

Some new groups of residents are now feeding stray cats. I’ve heard about cats who walk single file up to one house where they are fed. Bill has spent the better part of a day working with a demolition crew taking down a house, making sure there are no cats underneath. The workers were cooperative and agreed to take the house down in sections and let him check as they went along. Some of the rowdiest ferals have been TNRed, or trapped, neutered, and returned to their home grounds. While I would have preferred to slowly tame them, my two groups of cats aren’t compatible and I have no space to start newcomers and work them into my groups. I do hope one day I’ll be able to adopt another cat from this tornado-hit area. Unlike some others though, I won’t be naming a cat “Tornado” or “Debris”. I might go with “Doppler Radar”, something that saved our lives and many others.

On a hopeful note, the few residents remaining in the neighborhood are more closely bonded now. We have friends we didn’t know before. There was always a lakeside Christmas tree at Forest Lake and there is talk of putting the lights up again this year, if the power company will help out and run a line there. The shore will be bare of houses and trees though. We call the neighborhood “the Moors” “the plains”, or “Flatland” now. I envision the sight of the Christmas tree and once again, I don’t know whether I will smile or cry, or both. But the talk goes nowhere, everyone is just too busy. Someone does put up a small lighted tree on the shore.

On our annual Christmas light ride, Bill takes me unexpectedly by Mom’s house. She used to put a single electric candle in each window during Christmas. He has placed a candle in one of the new windows, having found them in a closet. I come close to tears, seeing that. It’s in her memory, and also to light the way home for Tiger. To get to the most elaborate light displays we have to drive out to Holt, where the tornado also went. Driving back it’s easy to tell when we get to the hit zone, not only by the lack of houses, but by the trees that are still standing against the night sky. The remains just don’t look right. Trunks and the few branches have been bent every whichaway by the winds, out of natural shape. The most resilient trees withstood the storm, but even they aren’t quite the same.

The tornado story will be a long time in the telling. I never would have imagined how difficult it is to pick up the pieces after just one tornado. I now think if I was young and healthy, I’d go into meteorology, or maybe the study of building storm-resistant structures.

There’s going to be an extra edge to the neighborhood New Year’s party. We’re really ready to kick this year’s sorry butt down the road.

In January, we get one of the donated young trees being given out for re-planting in the hit zones. The sight of that little magnolia tree planted beside Mom’s house gives my spirits a lift, but it’s also bittersweet. I wish my Mom was here to watch it grow and flower. I wish Tiger was here to rub on the trunk.

The mystery of the volunteer plants was probably solved when Bill talked to a neighbor on another block. He had an unplanted growth of petunias. He had also found seed packets all over his yard after the storm. They were likely from the pharmacy right beyond that lot. Why didn’t we think of this before? We don’t normally think about every day items from a store rack carried and torn by wind, or sitting on the ground dissolving slowly from rain.

On March 19, 2012, my Mom’s name is added to the city’s list of those lost due to tornado-worsened medical conditions.

There is at the very most, one degree of separation in this city. Eventually, in March of 2012, Bill talked with someone who had actually seen the tornado. Watching from his porch, apparently at a safe enough distance (don’t ever do this, if you see a tornado take cover), he says he saw two tornadoes that merged and became one. A picture we saw shortly afterwards suggests this may be true, but buildings on the horizon prevent an exact view.

The loss of my Mom has made my journey to move past the tornado even more difficult. So many good-hearted people from all over the nation and the world have helped us get through this, far too many to name here. In many cases I don’t even know the names. With the support of their good will and kindness, we are able to endure and rebuild on both material and emotional levels.

Note: This narrative records our experiences. It is not intended as a substitute for professional advice on severe storm safety or building techniques. Please consult appropriate sources for this information, and keep up with your local weather reports so you will know when conditions are favorable for the formation of severe storms.

Here is a link to a radio story done by an Alabama Public Radio station about Tiger and other animals in the tornado.

Remembering April 27: Not all Losses were Human

Here’s a link to my own later story about cats in the neighborhood after the storm:

About Leah

I'm Leah T. Alford, a writer fascinated by the natural world and animals, especially cats.
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15 Responses to Tornado on the Ground: Tuscaloosa April 27, 2011

  1. Pingback: Analysis of Cat, Bird, and Tree Life in a US Neighborhood | Catwoods Porch Party

  2. Lauren says:

    Wow, Leah! what a compelling and comprehensive account!
    Has Tiger returned?

  3. Pingback: Cats Wander Plains After Tornado | Catwoods Porch Party

  4. Even more incredibly moved to read your account. I hope you guys find Tiger. I’m sorry you lost your mom after the tornado. 😦 I am, however, happy to hear of the wonderful beings that blessed you guys and everyone else down there after the storm. It’s good to know there are still wonderful people out there, gives hope to an sometimes empty world. I wish you the best of luck in healing from this awful event. You are also very blessed to have Bill in your life! I think revisiting the path was a way of healing, sort of like the stages of grief. Again, never been through anything like what you have lived through, but I have to believe that the human spirit recovers and rebounds in its own time, and often the path is undetermined but the wisest way. Good luck to you and I am now following your blog, thank you for sharing your experience on the book review.- Georgette

    • Catwoods says:

      Thank you so much for all your kind words, Georgette, especially about my Mom and Tiger. We are still on the lookout for Tiger, I get discouraged, but I never give up hope. The huge kindness we received from everyone indeed helped us heal and get through. I can’t agree with you more, Bill was the one who got us all through the storm safely, he had two people who couldn’t do much to help, along with four animals to look out for. Thanks again for your kind wishes and wise words. All the best going out to you.

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  8. William says:

    great articles, beautiful pictures . . . and good luck with the book!

  9. catwoods says:

    I am late answering, but just want everyone to know that I appreciate each and every comment, as well as all readers, so much.

  10. Charlotte says:

    Leah, what can I say? I love you!

  11. Michelle Gates Mitchell says:

    Absolutely loved this and cried through most of it. I met your husband in Forest Lake and I believe I knew your mother. I would love to share your blog on our page. Please let us know if that’s okay. Please send an email to toomersfortuscaloosa when you have a chance. -M

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