Since I grew up in Alabama, I have grown up every year in the shadow of tornadoes. My mother is terrified of them, and I spent a significant amout of time in the basement with my mother and my cat. My father, who was not terrified of them, would be up on the roof looking out to see if he could see one coming. Somehow Mom knew a tornado was coming in the middle of the night (I don’t believe we had a weather alert system back then) and she would get me up, and down to the storm shelter we would go. I always had to round up the cat. I wanted to go up on the roof with my dad, but I was strictly forbidden.
I came as close to a tornado as I have ever come when I was in college. Well, except for a couple years ago when there was one hovering over the mall across the street from my hospital. When I was in college, the sky turned black and green and we knew what was coming. I lived in a rickety apartment building, on the second floor, but I had friends in the apartment below and sought out shelter in their downstairs closet. While we were in the closet, the entire building creaked and groaned, and I could swear, slanted. When the wind finally stopped, we emerged to find that the tornado had passed right through the field next to the apartment complex. There were pieces of roof and walls scattered about that the tornado had picked up and dropped there.
When my husband and I were first dating, he came home to Tuscaloosa with me for a visit with my folks. My mom didn’t like him much anyway. I think the feeling was mutual. We went to the fabled Dreamland Barbecue for lunch, only to emerge to a tornado warning. My mother began to get panicky, since we were nowhere near our house or our storm shelter. She urged my father to drive faster, to which he testily replied, “Do you want me to drive through the car in front of us?” When my husband became aware of how terrified of tornadoes Mom really was, a little sadistic streak came out in him. He peered through the back window of the car and announced that he could see some rotation in the clouds above. Needless to say, we barely made it home in one piece, as Mom was practically crawling over my dad in an attempt to stomp on the gas and get us home sooner. When we got home, my husband was treated to one of our family trips to the basement.
April of 2011 was a horrible time for Alabama and storms. That was the month that dozens of tornadoes came through the state in one day – killing and maiming many in their path, with tremendous destruction to property and land. I was at work that day, and we had to bring the office patients down to the bottom floor of the hospital not once but twice. That involved getting them dressed and leading them down the back stairs to the first floor, where they were not allowed to leave until the all-clear was sounded. We also had to roll the hospital inpatients in their beds out into the hall, away from any windows. So, we had patients in various stages of labor parked out in the hall in their hospital beds. We were praying we would not have to deliver anyone out in the hall. Fortunately, our immediate area passed through the tornadoes relatively unscathed. A few miles down the road, they were not so lucky. The tornadoes always seem to pass just south of us. When the tornado struck, tornado casualties were brought by the dozens to our two local hospitals. My partner, who was on call that night, stayed up all night in the ER, suturing superficial wounds and helping the general surgeons with any needed exploratory surgery.
Tuscaloosa, my hometown, was not so lucky. The town was wiped out by a tornado of F4-F5 quality. It was at least a mile wide. The destruction was astounding. The tornado passed very close to where my parents lived, and in their new house, they have no basement. Mom and Daddy were in the laundry room riding out the storm. When they emerged, the town was destroyed. Some foolhardy idiot stayed out in the storm in their car and followed the funnel cloud and filmed it on their cell phone. The video hit U-Tube with a viral wallop. Truly though, half of the town was gone. And this is a town that is no stranger to tornado violence. They got hit by one a few years back that resulted in that iconic photograph of the rescue person carrying the limp body of a child out of the wreckage. That picture made the cover of every newspaper in the country. This new tornado passed through the college campus and nearly took out the newly renovated stadium. The Krispy Kreme was gone. Chuck E. Cheese was gone. Hobby Lobby was gone. Neighborhoods were gone. The tornado came right down the main boulevard in town. The town was in a state of shock. The state was declared a state of emergency.
I have always taken tornadoes seriously, even though I have been exposed to so many of them in my life. But never have I witnessed first hand destruction like that that took place in Alabama that fated April. The state is still attempting to recover. There are still swaths of trees stripped bare by the destruction in their path. Businesses have still not been rebuilt. And it is over a year and a half after the tornadoes hit. I know so many people who are now terrified and helpless at the sound of a tornado warning siren. And we get them all year, although they are seasonal. On today, December 19, the outside temperature is 68 degrees. Tonight and tomorrow, a cold front is coming through and the storms are going to get bad. I am just praying for no tornadoes.