We are shaped by the events in our life. It can be a gradual process, like water over rock. Or it can be an all-at-once, your-life-changes-in-a-heartbeat kind of event. Either way, it is our experiences — and more importantly, how we handle them and come out on the other side — that makes us who we are. Fair warning, this blog post is quite lengthy.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about four years ago — for me, 2011 was a year of more than one of those immediately life-altering events. The first came on the afternoon of April 27. You ask anyone who calls Tuscaloosa home what they were doing on that day in April four years ago, and you will get a story. Mine is certainly less catastrophic than some, more devastating than others…
By the time spring rolled around, I had been living on my dad’s 50-foot wooden Chris-Craft (for those of you unfamiliar, it’s a yacht — a classic) for almost a year. My dad had been restoring it bit by bit over the previous several years, and there was not a single piece of that boat he had not touched.
He was there on that fateful morning and made me breakfast: Scrambled eggs, bacon, and cheese grits — no toast.
I had class that afternoon, but a bunch of errands and such to do beforehand, so I headed out. It was the day of final group presentations in my Instructional Sign Language class; each group had picked a song, learned how to sign the lyrics, and we were presenting it to the class.
We never got to present our song.
Class started at 4pm, so my other group members and I met up a little after 3pm for some last-minute practice. We knew the weather was supposed to be bad that day, but it was April in Alabama. We had already had one round of storms move through earlier that morning, and another bad bout just a few days before.
At 3:30pm, UA announced classes were canceled.
My dad was still at the boat, and we were planning on having dinner (slow-cooked pork ribs) together that night. But, since I was leaving campus early, I decided I’d run by and see my mom at work before I headed home; she had a job as a hotel desk clerk just a few miles away from campus. I called her to let her know class had been canceled and that I would be dropping by. I will never forget what she said:
“Get here now.”
Nearly four years and 600 miles away from that moment, I still get chills.
I told her I had to stop for gas, and she repeated it. “Get here now.” But I wasn’t getting anywhere without fuel, so I stopped at the little Exxon just off of campus that was on my way. While I was pumping gas, I could hardly see for the wind whipping my hair in my face. The sky looked…wrong.
I didn’t fill up — just got enough to get me to my mom’s hotel and back home, with the intention of filling up when I came into town the next day. My plan was still to see my mom and go home. I left campus, cutting through on the road running behind the hospital. I crossed over the railroad tracks, passed the entrances to neighborhoods housed by mostly students, and came out at a light on 15th Street next to the Express Oil Change, across from Taco Casa. It was the last time I would see any of it past the railroad tracks.
When I got to the hotel, there was a couple from out of town that were camped out in the lobby. They were freaking out over the encroaching storm. The rest of us native Alabamians were basically brushing it off. It was a storm, possibly a tornado (you never know what the sky’s going to throw down in the South), but it was a day that ended in “y” so we were used to it. But as the storm approached the Mississippi state line, James Spann (local weatherman extraordinaire) was throwing out words like “EF-5” and “supercell.” For those of you with any knowledge of tornadoes, you know these are the exact adjectives you do not want to hear.
I don’t remember the precise time, but it was around 5 o’clock. There was a crowd in the lobby now. More people had drifted downstairs to watch the weather on the TV in the sitting area — that whole safety-in-numbers notion, I suppose. Plus, there was a small group checking in at the front desk.
And that’s when the sirens went off. The lights followed soon thereafter.
We all made a beeline for the small bathroom on the interior wall of the hotel. My mother, the crazy woman, stood just outside the door, watching out the windows — so she saw it first. Instead of running screaming for the bathroom like a sane person, she watched for a few minutes (I honestly think she was frozen in shock). After determining that it was not heading in our direction and was actually a few miles off, she called me out to come have a look.
I had never actually seen a tornado before. We’d had some close calls in my lifetime, but a lot of them were at night when you couldn’t see it coming. But it was dusk, and there was no mistaking what was moving across the horizon.
I did not personally record this video. Once we realized we weren’t in danger, a lot of us filed out to watch through the windows. The guest who shot this video was standing outside on his balcony. You can actually see the moment when the power goes out — you know, the moment when we saner folks in the lobby headed for the relative safety of the bathroom. Except for my mom. Naturally.
But I watched as this behemoth tore through Tuscaloosa. I watched as the delivery van from Full Moon Barbecue was lifted into the air and tossed aside like a piece of lint. I watched as homes were destroyed and lives were lost. I watched as the landscape of Tuscaloosa was forever altered in just a few heart-rending moments that felt like centuries. And I watched it until it disappeared behind the tree line, never realizing where it was headed next.
Everyone says tornadoes sound like freight trains. I have no idea. All I remember is the utter silence in the moments after it had moved on. All of the white noise of a bustling town — the traffic, the buzzing of the florescent lights, the chatter of distant conversations and radios, the birds and barking dogs — gone. I have never heard such utter silence. I hope to God I never hear it again.
The quiet didn’t last long. It was broken by sirens. Police, ambulances, fire trucks… They all went into overdrive. The men and women responsible for the safety and well-being of Tuscaloosa County residents worked themselves to the bone to save whom they could and recover those who were lost. I interned with the Tuscaloosa Police Department a couple of summers after the tornado, and the conversation often turned to where the officers were on the day of The Tornado — especially when I was riding with the officers from the precinct that had been demolished by the beast. The bits and pieces of the stories they shared… I just can’t even imagine.
Once the tornado had moved beyond my line of sight, I got the bright idea to go home. Eagle Cove Marina was located in a offshoot of the Black Warrior River, just northeast of the city proper. The couple-of-miles-long road leading down to the marina was tree-lined — which was often a problem with even small storms. Trees would fall and block the road. Since it was still daylight, I thought that would be the time to make sure the path was clear. So, I set off on the typical 15-20 minute drive home. I saw limited damage along the way — and it could have even been from the storm earlier that morning. A few small tree limbs were down, canvas awnings were loose, things like that. I turned off the main highway next to John’s gas station — the only store for miles. I crossed the railroad tracks, made the sharp left turn around the curve…
And came face-to-face with a war zone.
I just remember everything looking green from where the trees had been uprooted and branches ripped away to lie fallen on the ground. And the line of cars coming in the other direction, truck beds full of bedraggled people.
As fate would have it, I spotted the little red truck belonging to the marina owner and pulled a U-turn to flag him down. He pulled over at John’s, and as I walked up to his car window, where others had gathered to talk to him, I caught a snippet of the conversation.
“Eagle Cove is gone.”
And then, somebody mentioned Jack.
The world spun. My knees went out, and I fell against his car, practically throwing myself through his window.
“What was that about my dad?”
I was beyond relieved to hear he was banged up, but otherwise fine. Ever since the tornado had hit, cell phone service was practically non-existent, so I hadn’t been able to get in touch with him.
I found out later that “banged up” was an understatement.
My dad had left the boat when the tornado sirens had sounded, heading to the building at the marina’s entrance that had served as a restaurant in the past. He was standing outside of it, talking to a neighbor, when he saw the tornado crest the line of trees at the very top of the hill. The neighbor started toward the door of the old restaurant, but my dad knew the building itself — with the huge, glass-fronted porch — was not safe. Instead, he and the neighbor crawled under the covered porch, shoving themselves up as close to the building’s foundation as possible.
Half of the porch was torn away and never seen again. The other half landed on top of my dad.
He woke up in the parking lot.
Friends at the marina said he had crawled out from under the porch and walked there himself, but he didn’t remember it.
Regardless of the concussion and the bruised ribs, plus multiple abrasions — and after checking in with the people milling about to make sure everyone was accounted for — he went back to the boat to retrieve his laptop. I know, I know. But that’s just my dad. He could lose a limb, and he’d just swipe at the nub with some paper towels and say it would be fine. Don’t get me started.
However, “going back to the boat” was not as simple as it had once been. The entire dock had been knocked loose and had shifted around so that, instead of pointing out toward the Black Warrior, it was shoved up beside the other dock that ran along the bank heading further inland. And when my dad entered the boat — after sliding down the embankment and crossing over half-floating detritus, the water was already to his knees.
I don’t know what he did with the laptop. Maybe he stored it in his truck, which was parked behind the restaurant. Tornadoes are weird that way. The restaurant had shifted on its foundation, half of the porch had literally been ripped away and flung only God knows where… And my dad’s truck had a spiderwebbed windshield. Similarly, at the top of the hill, (the restaurant sat near a retaining wall closer to the water), vehicles were a little roughed up, but the shower house only a few yards away had been relegated to nothing but a flat concrete slab.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this until much later. The roads to the marina were completely impassable, and once they were finally opened, they were cordoned off by the National Guard, entrance excluded to residents only.
Later that night, while trying to get some sleep on the floor in the hotel lobby, my phone rang. Like I said, service was spotty at best and downright evasive at worst, so it was a miracle the call came through. My dad was at the hospital… on the opposite side of the tornado’s path. My dad, who I had been told was fine and just a little “banged up.” My dad, who, in a incident a couple of years later, would have to be tricked into going to the ER against his will after crashing his truck grill-first into a tree, was somewhat voluntarily at DCH hospital getting checked out.
I cried. Which scared the crap out of my mom, who was still manning the front desk like a sentinel, even though there was no electricity. She basically had to hold onto me to keep me from leaving and walking to DCH if I had to. (Maybe now would be a good time to mention my parents had been divorced for about 20 years at this point). Obviously, she was worried, but walking through a full mile of carnage in the dark was a less-than-ideal plan. And I was assured — again — that he was fine. I only believed it when I was also told he was grumbling at everyone for fussing over him.
At this point, you might be wondering how he made it to the hospital. If not, you should be. Remember how I said the roads were impassable?
My dad walked the 2-3 miles uphill from the marina, crawling over trees and other debris — not to go to the ER, but to get help. With a concussion and bruised ribs. My father, ladies and gentlemen.
He met a State Trooper halfway up the hill as the officer was making his way down. I don’t remember the exact details after that, but somehow, my dad made it into a car and on his way to DCH.
After The Tornado, Tuscaloosa pulled herself up by her bootstraps. Everyone was organizing and offering aid to those in need. Our football arch-nemesis on the other side of the state, Auburn University, sent a truckload of people with supplies. You’ll probably only really understand the impact of that last statement if you’re from Alabama — there, football is religion, life, and the bread and butter of everything under the sun. Rivalries on the field extend to real life. But for a moment, everyone put aside their grievances (real and imagined) and came together to support one another.
I experienced this personally — sans the rivalry portion of it.
The day after the storm, my mom had finally been relieved by another clerk, and we moved to a room to get some rest. The power was still out on our side of town, so everything was closed, and we didn’t have so much as a toothbrush.
But there was a knock on our door, and a group of my friends on the other side of it. My mom cried and hugged all of them, even the ones she didn’t know. Just before the storm had hit, apparently one of my text messages had made it to my friend, Valerie’s, phone. So she knew where I was, and she showed up with reinforcements. They took me shopping for supplies at the WalMart on the other side of town, a 15-minute trip that took over an hour even outside of the catastrophe zone, and wouldn’t let me pay for a single thing. My mom cried again when she heard that part..and when she held the only thing she’d requested from the store: a 12-pack of Mountain Dew.
Even today, four years later, Tuscaloosa is still recovering. For instance, it was only announced a couple of weeks ago that one of the businesses hit hardest by the tornado was coming back, but in a different location. And Tuscaloosa wasn’t the only place affected. The mile-wide tornado that swept through the heart of Tuscaloosa, skirting along the edge of the campus of the University of Alabama, trudged along to cut an 80.7-mile-long path of utter destruction. I’m going to say that again. This EF-4/EF-5 tornado (damage surveys vary) was on the ground for 80.7 miles. It claimed the lives of 64 people, including 6 UA students.
Yet, as much as I want to rail against this beast that caused so much destruction and ruined so many lives, as much as I want to curse it and call it the vile thing that it was… I am grateful to it. I made a mention earlier of the events that shape our lives. This one put me right where I needed to be some 7 months later.
After The Tornado heartbreakingly sank my dad’s boat (my home), I moved in with my mom. Which meant that I was there with her on the night of November 21, when an aneurysm burst in her brain. I was there to hear her call out for me. And I was there to call 911 when only her eyes could implore me to help. She passed away three days later, in the ICU at DCH, and I was holding her hand when she went. Without the tornado that displaced me, I wouldn’t have been there with her when she needed me the most. So yeah, I’m thankful to the beast. I can despise it and thank it in the same breath, without a blink.
And as I sit writing this in my bedroom in West Lafayette, Indiana, and the tornado sirens are being tested (uncanny and eerie as all get out, right?), I can’t help but think about how I ended up here, as this person in this place. I’ve done things I never thought I could possibly do, and I can’t help but wonder if I’m able to do them because the worst events in my life made me strong enough to accomplish the seemingly impossible. It’s not surviving the storm that’s most important; it’s how you live afterwards that really matters. You can give up and give in to bad stuff, or you can shove your way through and tell it off after the fact. You can be overwhelmed, or you can overcome. And life is far too short to throw in the towel early.