Raised during the Great Depression, my 88-year old mother in Maryland never calls me. Long-distance charges, even though affordable, are too extravagant. She writes letters instead.
This morning, she called. She’d seen the horrific footage on TV of the monster from Hell that sheared through Tuscaloosa and towns north and east of Birmingham like a Marine barber giving a new recruit a buzz-cut. She thought she was going to hear the dreaded busy signal. Instead, she heard me. My voice was a gift.
Wednesday’s tornadoes were the worst natural disaster ever to hit Alabama. The F-5 that leveled Tuscaloosa crossed the entire state from southeast to northwest. And it was only one storm. Dozens of others devoured lives just as greedily.
Natural disasters stir up strange emotions. When they occur elsewhere, we say, “Oh, that’s horrible!” and then change the channel to ESPN. An epic tsunami hits Japan. I say, “That’s horrible.” Then I think, “I live 250 miles from the coast. We don’t have tsunamis.”
No. But we do have tornadoes. And like tsunamis, they don’t give you 24 hours’ notice. If you’re in the wrong place, your house explodes and you die.
When it all went down in Alabama, I was in Arkansas, attending a bloggers’ event at the home of P. Allen Smith (more about that next week). I watched the weather radar on my iPhone. The carnage began at 5:30 AM Wednesday. I saw a malevolent squall line approaching Birmingham, so I called home. Cell phone service was out. For some strange reason, though, the land line worked. My wife, Judy, picked up. She said she had to rush to work at University Hospital downtown before the storms hit. On her way in, trees fell down. Neigborhoods went black. A power transformer exploded over her head. But she made it in safely.
Thousands of trees lay on the ground. Many others crushed houses. It’s funny how in a storm a tree that you’ve loved for decades suddenly becomes your enemy. As you stare at the trunk and limbs that just crushed your porch and turned your SUV into a toaster with tires, you hate every stinking wooden cell in its body.
But that was just the morning storms. The afternoon storms were much worse. One town was hit by a tornado in the morning and another one in the afternoon. Imagine that. Imagine ever trying to sleep again. Imagine.
Power was out all over Birmingham, so people couldn’t watch the approaching weather on TV. But our land line still worked. I called my boy and told him to get in the basement. Here I was in Arkansas watching storms he couldn’t see and telling him where they were going. It was surreal.
By now, you know how the story ended. You’ve seen the video. One was taken from a student residence at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa where a friend’s daughter lives. It gave me the willies just watching it. The tornado was gigantic and it just kept going.
But maybe you don’t know this part. Remember the nut job Alabama fan who poisoned the trees of arch-rival Auburn? Well, people at Auburn are organizing relief and sending supplies to the people in Tuscaloosa. Alabama may be a football-crazy state, but despite what you hear, football is not life-or-death. Wednesday’s storms were life-or-death. Alabamians will respond in the best way.
As for the Grump, my neighborhood was spared. When I got home from the airport, we had milk in the refrigerator and power in the house. Trees still standing. Roof still on. Judy and I split a bottle of wine. She deserved hers, after spending the day working on trauma patients.
Did I deserve mine? I’ve heard about survivor’s guilt — you know, the guy who survives the plane crash when everyone around him died, and wonders why he was spared?
Now I know the feeling well.