Thursday, May 5, 2011
The Day of the Tornadoes
Thanks so much so our little sister, ras, who experienced the tornadoes in Alabama and shares her story with us. It really brings it home. Photo from CNN.
The Day Itself
Wednesday, April 27th, is a day that is always going to be known at the Day of the Tornadoes in Alabama. Yes, it really was that bad.
I was awakened by thunder about 5:45 in the morning. I got up to take the dogs out and a few minutes the tornado sirens sounded for the first time. I checked the weather and the storm was in the southern part of the county and moving away (this is a BIG county) so I didn’t wake up K. Pretty soon I find out they’ve delayed schools until 10 am. I look at the radar and wonder why they were opening them at all. I had a lot of extra time now, so I made pancakes for the two of us. I wasn’t worried; no one really was at that point –and I grew up in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas; so I’ve seen storms and tornadoes all my life.
On my way to the school the tornado sirens started sounding again. I was literally right underneath one when it started and nearly went off the road. I got to work and they were putting kids in the hall, even though this storm as well was far enough away to not have to worry about it. We stayed in the hall until about 10:15, when we were all dismissed to classrooms. About 10:50 they announce that schools will close at 12:15. Basically, they opened long enough to serve lunch so that they wouldn’t have to make up the day. Only, it didn’t work out that way.
By 11 the line to check kids back out of school stretched down the block; I could see it from the classroom I was in. Not too long after 11 –fifteen or twenty minutes, give or take –the sirens blew again and back to the hallway we went. Our first close call happened about thirty minutes later. They said the storm was about five minutes away and then the hallway suddenly got dark.
I mean DARK. There were windows into the classrooms on one side, which all had windows opening on the street, and suddenly it was so dark the streetlights outside came on. I felt my stomach roll. I know that look; my great-aunt used to tell me that when the sky gets that way, you grab the kids and the chickens and get into cover. The mountain saved us for the first time that day; it pushed the worst of the storm slightly northward, and the tornado with it. I still don’t know how large that tornado was; we may never know, as one later in the day took pretty much the same track. The tornado did some damage and hit a glancing blow to one of the county high schools; luckily no one was injured.
Now the storms really got started. They never completely stopped between noon and eight that night. The kids never went back to the classroom, much less to lunch. We stayed in the hallway. Furthermore, the school board decided it was too dangerous to roll the buses (which it was) so the kids had to wait at school until their parents came to get them. It was two o’clock before they finally turned me loose, and there were still kids waiting. About 1:30 the ladies from the lunchroom brought bananas around to everyone, but no one got any lunch.
I got home to find there was no damage as of yet. I turned on the radio and ate lunch. It seemed like the tornado sirens never stopped blowing. About 4:30 the power went out. I thought it was just a cut line at that point; the storm going through was particularly bad. It was the worst of all actually –and it wasn’t long before I was in the bathtub, with an EF5 tornado coming towards us. K was still trapped in the basement at work.
I’m sure you know that axiom “two is one and one is none”. Well, during the worst of this, my battery-powered radio failed. Just failed. The batteries didn’t go out; the thing just quit working. I put new batteries in it later and it still didn’t work. That tornado got close enough to my house –probably a couple of miles, but that’s near enough, with a tornado more than a mile wide –for me to hear it in the bathroom, over the whining of the dogs and a howling cat. It was thunder that went on and on and on. It was the sound of death incarnate. There is nothing quite as scary as that sound –save perhaps the rattling of a rattlesnake. It’s that kind of instinctive fear, as my cat was quite loudly telling me.
Eventually it was over, and I climbed out of the bathtub, a little dazed. I haven’t had to climb into a tub in years, and even then I had a hunch that it wouldn’t have helped. We didn’t know then how large that tornado was, but the sound was a clue. If an EF5 tornado makes a direct hit on your house and you are inside, and not in a basement or safe room, You. Will. Not. Survive. It doesn’t matter how macho you are. That tornado not only scoured houses down to their foundations, it pulled the anchor bolts from the concrete.
The day wore on. K finally made it home during a break in the weather around seven. I’ve only rarely seen K cry, but I saw it then. The storms finally moved out an hour later. In that fourteen hour period there were 26 separate tornado warnings for my county alone. We survived. A lot of people did not.
You’ve seen the pictures of Tuscaloosa by now, and probably even the video of the tornado. Scenes like that are replicated all over the state. It was the largest outbreak of tornadoes ever. The biggest tornado that came through Madison County was the longest ever recorded. It started just inside the Alabama border with Mississippi and cut a diagonal line across the state that was 232 miles long before it entered Tennessee. At one point it was more than 1.25 miles wide.
A few miles from us there is an intersection. On one side was a subdivision; on the other side there was a bank and two small shopping centers. The only thing left is a bank. Everything else is gone. You can’t even tell where the lots for the different houses were from the road. Nor can you tell which building was a supermarket and which a gas station.
The damage is worse than any bomb. It is just horrific. The most shocking thing about it is, like, any tornado strike, how capricious the damage was. In some places you can see a whole house standing in the middle of a debris field. Some friends of mine took a glancing blow from the EF5; the edge grazed their front yard. They have about 5 acres, 4 of which used to be wooded. Their house was surrounded by trees and their driveway was lined by them. The house is fine; all the trees are gone. Even the ones around the house, and ALL of those fell away from the house. One of them took out a gutter as it fell but that was it. The house is now surrounded by a perfect circle of fallen trees.
We don’t yet know the death toll. There are still a lot of missing people.
Life after the Storms
Our power did not come back on until Monday afternoon. There are still a lot of people who don’t have it. You know those huge 150-ft high transmission towers? The storms took out 49 of them in Madison County alone, plus more of the 75-ft towers. They cut all the power feeds to and from Browns Ferry; the reactors shut down automatically and were on generator power until Sunday night. They took down 96 high-voltage lines in the county and cut all 8 points were power from TVA feeds into Huntsville. When all was said and done, there was no power coming into the entire county. Nor were we the only county; power was out over a swath about 75 miles wide and over 100 miles long, as well as in many other areas.
K and I quickly resorted to listening for news in the car, since we never did manage to get that radio working again. It was apparent even on Wednesday evening that power was going to be out for awhile, so I headed to the garage and wrapped the deep freeze with every spare blanket in the house. It was eerie that night –no streetlights, no humming a/c units, no one leaving. One of our next door neighbors came home just before dark and sat in her car for the longest time, pressing her garage door opener. She got quite mad that it didn’t work.
There were 30 burglaries in town Wednesday night. I should rephrase that: there were 30 reported burglaries Wednesday night; a lot of people around here aren’t the sort to call the police. They would drive off a burglar themselves and go back to sleep.
On Thursday the sheriff instituted a county-wide sunset to sunrise curfew. Thursday morning TVA announced that it would be 3-7 days before power came back. People panicked. Star Supermarkets (a small, local chain) opened from 8 am until they ran out of fuel for their generators; lines stretched around the block. The owner drove all the way to Nashville to get more generators and fuel to get them back open. All of the stoplights were out, of course, but people were generally polite on Thursday and Friday. I drove down to check on my adopted grandmother, who promptly sent me to the store for her. (Her only flashlight was broken.) It was crazy. People in there were actually arguing over real cans of Spam.
For five days there was no power, no gas, no ice to be found unless you were lucky enough to get ice from a truck that pulled up. My in-laws waited in an ice line for three hours and got two of the last bags. There were burglaries, break-ins and looting or attempted looting every night. At least one would-be looter was shot and killed by the store owner on Friday morning. I never thought I would say this, but thank god this is Alabama; there are a lot of states where he would have been arrested. Instead, we had the sheriff reminding everyone every day of this that we “have the right to defend our property”.
On Thursday people drove up to two hours to get gas, generators, and supplies. By Friday generators became available as store owners trucked them in but the lines were horrendous, and just about every place selling them had police protection. Publix Supermarkets earned a lot of loyalty during this crisis; as soon as it became obvious power wasn’t coming back on anytime soon they started trucking in industrial generators and by 8 am Friday morning had all of their stores up and running with fresh supplies –they even had the muzak and air conditioning going. They also opened up the stores as a charging center for cell phones and the like. Not that it did much good for a lot of us; by Friday evening most of the towers had run out of battery power, though the crews replaced them as fast as they could.
On Saturday we decided we’d had enough. Not only had we heard gunshots in our neighborhood two nights in a row, not only were people now driving like asshats and doing whatever they wanted, but almost all of our neighbors (the ones that were left, that is) had generators and were running them constantly. It was so loud we couldn’t hear each other talk in our own living room. We packed up and went to the land for the weekend. We still didn’t have power, but at least it was peaceful and we were able to find an open laundromat.
Monday we came back, because we knew the power was starting to come back. It still wasn’t on in a lot of areas of town. We lost count of the number of the “Looters will be shot” signs and target practice sheets that had been hung up in windows; it was more than half a dozen.
We survived and the only damage was a few downed tree limbs; some of our neighbors lost trees and there’s a foreclosure down the street with a tree down on it. But we got lucky and we know it.
My hat is off to TVA and Huntsville Utilities –they were able to jury rig a system built over decades to run in less than a week. They still have to replace the towers, but locally at least the system is up and running. A lot of places in the state are still without power, and estimates range from 2 weeks to 6 months for it to be restored.
-It was amazing how quickly people started demanding free food. I heard three such demands on the radio by Thursday afternoon, and I wasn’t listening that often to conserve the car battery. (It happened Wednesday evening, remember.) These people weren’t asking; they didn’t politely request to know if anyone was serving food because they didn’t have any food in the house and no way to quick it. No, they demanded to know where they could get free food –emphasis on the free.
-A 2/3s empty chest freezer that’s well-wrapped will last more than 48 hours before it starts to defrost. If this had happened in the fall when the freezer is full I don’t think we would have lost anything, or just the top layer.
-Cell phone towers last about 48 hours in a power outage; don’t depend on them longer than that.
-Never underestimate the power of human stupidity. Remember my neighbor and the garage door opener? The neighbor across the street couldn’t get into her house at all. Not only does she have a garage door opener, but she keeps both storm doors locked, so she had no way in. Once she finally got in, she still couldn’t eat anything because she has no grill and only an electric can opener!