This post is long. It’s probably the longest post I’ve written here. But once I started writing, the words just kept pouring out. This past Friday, April 27th, marked 1 year from the day 62 tornadoes swept through Alabama, with many others striking surrounding states. I was surprised by the emotions I felt on Friday as I looked back at that day. Though we weren’t physically impacted, that day is now part of my story, and I wanted to share it with you.
April 27 was a Wednesday last year. I went to work as usual that morning listening to weather reports predicting horrific storms for the afternoon. By lunchtime, the sky was grey and low. It was muggy outside when the wind started picking up. While the guys stood out in the parking area looking at the leaves blow in circles, one of my coworkers and I stood halfway down the basement stairs, our hearts racing, a bag of chips and a bottle of water in tow in case we needed to stay down there for awhile. That wave of storms passed without incident but brought with it heavy rain. Some of the thrift store staff braved it over to our office in order to not be in the open warehouse of the store.
We all left early since that morning’s predictions hadn’t changed. I don’t remember driving home, though I think it had cleared up by then. Andy had also left work early and we met each other at home. Shaky as I always am when the sirens go off, we hunkered down in our laundry room, the safest place we could think of in our second-floor apartment. I had pillows, a blanket, and a book, but I never could calm down enough to read. Andy had his iPhone, on which we listened to the continuing weather coverage using the I Heart Radio app. The storm tracks were all over the place, including some not far from us. I couldn’t keep up with which tornado was where. Every time they issued an all clear for our area it was followed by a caution not to get too comfortable because it wasn’t over yet.
We stayed in the laundry room into the evening hours. At some point, the power went out. We finally emerged to our dark apartment and ate peanut butter and honey sandwiches on hamburger buns. I browsed through social media on my phone and started seeing reports of the massive tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa. We hadn’t heard anything about it all afternoon because the weathermen had kept busy telling us about our area’s storms. I called my parents to let them know we were okay, and we went to bed assuming the power would be back on in the morning and life would go on as usual.
The next morning the power was not back on. In fact, reports started rolling out that all of Madison County was in the dark and it might be up to 7 days before electricity was restored due to extensive damage to main lines connecting the TVA plant with the Huntsville Utilities grid. Thankfully Andy and I had a car battery jumpstarter that was fully charged and we were able to use USB cords to keep our phones alive. Twitter was basically our only window into the rest of the world, and it was an incredible resource, with individuals and local news sources updating with whatever they knew. We gingerly headed out to go see about Andy’s mom, who had been at home alone throughout the storms. She was fine, though a tornado had destroyed homes less than a mile from her, and was even able to offer us a hot cup of tea because she had a propane stove on which to boil water. All the radio DJs were doing that day was keeping people apprised of the situation: lines for ice at stores were blocks long, gas stations were running out of gas, a neighborhood in a nearby suburb had been destroyed.
Andy I got home in time to eat cold taco noodle casserole off paper plates for dinner. I had stocked our freezer in anticipation of not wanting cook that week…because we were scheduled to move to Atlanta on Saturday. Needless to say, with the power off for so long, all of that stockpile got tossed. Andy started trying to get in touch with UHaul to find out about our scheduled truck rental for Saturday. Obviously the Huntsville store was closed, but after a lot of time on hold and frustration with lack of information, we managed to secure a truck in Athens, about 45 minutes away. The next morning we set out. Driving was slow-going because all the traffic lights were out and too many people were trying to procure necessities. We took back roads in order to avoid major intersections and were appalled to realize we were driving right along the path one of the tornadoes had taken. As we drove by, anticipating our UHaul, a hearty lunch, and a move to begin a new chapter of our lives, we saw people standing in their yards surveying piles of rubble, surely with no idea yet how to proceed. This was Friday, 2 days after the storms.
Athens had power and was crowded with people who had come from all around to take advantage of that. We had lunch at Zaxby’s, and those chicken tenders and diet Coke tasted so good to me after days of eating only whatever food we had that didn’t need to be cooked. We got our UHaul and decided it was worth it to wait in line for gas, since we would be trying to make it to Atlanta the next day. The drive back was the first time I’d been by myself since the storm, and it was sobering to be alone in the car. A lot of people had gotten out of Huntsville as soon as they could, going to places as inconsequential as the beach or their parents’ houses. Our complex was like a ghost town, though we did meet our first-floor neighbors for the first time in 2 years. They were trying to figure out how to satisfy their young daughter without being able to keep milk in the fridge and were hoping to get out of town.
We packed up our UHaul and headed to Atlanta the next morning. We weren’t sure what we would encounter as we drove east, and I did find myself passing through a few destroyed areas. As I drove into Henegar, a small town that received a lot of damage but wasn’t talked about on the news, the song “Proud to be an American” came on the radio, and I started to cry at the poignancy of it. Even though my life and home had been spared, I had never been so close to total devastation. We got to Atlanta in the midst of our neighborhood’s annual festival. It felt surreal, moving into this place with power and air conditioning and a shower that I could use, with people milling all around having a good time who had no idea what had just happened in Alabama or that I had come from there.
Though we had planned to come back to Huntsville on Sunday so that I could work my last full week at Second Mile, Andy and I ended up staying in Atlanta until Tuesday due to reports that the power was still not back on. It was a weird time of suspended animation. I wasn’t finished with my old life yet, but I couldn’t quite start my new one! That was also the weekend that Osama bin Laden was killed, and it was bizarre to be sitting in my new living room watching that announcement. We drove back to Huntsville early Tuesday morning through an eerie misting rain. It felt bizarre to go into the office, and we all swapped storm stories. We had been supposed to have our annual fundraising golf tournament the day before, but it was impossible to go on with that plan. It was postponed until after I’d be gone, which was bittersweet. Andy and I had dinner at his parents’ house that evening, and our power finally came back on that night. The vast majority of our stuff was in Atlanta by then, so we slept on an air mattress that kept losing air.
Thursday, a week and a day after the storms, Andy finished cleaning out our apartment and left for Atlanta. I spent the night with my in-laws and went into work for one last morning. My boss took me out for coffee, and I hit the road at about noon. As I drove away, I couldn’t help feeling that I was abandoning my state in its time of need, that I was jumping ship when so many people were suffering. I knew it was ridiculous to feel that way—our move had been planned for months, and it was just an odd coincidence that such turmoil struck right then. We felt blessed that we were able to proceed as scheduled, because it could easily have gone so differently.
I don’t know anyone who died that day. In fact, I’m not even sure I know anyone directly who lost their home. I do know someone who was working at a store in Tuscaloosa that was leveled, and a friend of mine lost the apartment complex where she had just signed a lease (though she wasn’t there that day). Yet those storms still had quite the emotional impact on me. On Friday, the one year anniversary, I found myself jittery just remembering how intense it had all been, and of course all the photo recaps and Facebook posts reminding me only added to it. It was this day 1 year ago in relation to the storms that we drove away to Atlanta.
Even though it’s been a year, the recovery is far from over. In fact, in some places it’s only just beginning. I was in Tuscaloosa last weekend and the intersection of 15th and McFarland still bears deep scars. As I left last Saturday, I saw what looked to be a group of people doing cleanup in one area. But through it all, Alabama has stood firm. Even though I moved away in the midst of it, I still felt like a piece of the puzzle, and felt the power of communities coming together in the face of calamity. We won’t forget.