Facing Alabama…with a heavy heart.

(Originally posted May 11, 2011)

It has been two weeks since the proverbial rug was ripped out from under everyone in Alabama. The tornados that tore through my home state, as well as many other states, has left a wound that will not be healed in this lifetime.  Towns were wiped off the map.  Hundreds of Alabamians perished, thinking that huddling inside a bathtub or closet would protect them, never imagining the ferocity of nature that was barreling their way. Thousands of the grand, majestic trees which made up so much of Alabama’s landscape have been pulled from their roots, twisted into mulch, leaving behind what many have described as a “War Zone.”  Indeed, one of the beautiful churches in Cullman, First United Methodist could just as easily have been in war-torn Europe in 1945 as Cullman, Alabama in 2011.   

For several days prior, my Mother would mention that Wednesday, April 27, was predicted to be “one of the worst days ever” for severe weather in Alabama. Every time I spoke to her she would note with apprehension the impending forecast. Allow me to note that my Mother being up-to-date on the weather forecast is akin to the sun rising in the East each morning.  ‘Reliable’ doesn’t even begin to describe.  Mother and the folks at The Weather Channel are on first name basis. I have often said, that if I want to know the weather here in Dallas, Texas, I call my Mother in Alabama!  Mama KNOWS whats supposed to happen!  As Wednesday drew closer, I began to worry about my Mother and Daddy being caught in the dangerous weather.  Amy, my sister lives in Cullman, Alabama not too far away from Hanceville where my folks live.  She and my brother in law, Rex have a large, wonderful basement that would be far greater shelter in severe weather than Mother’s bedroom closet, the usual spot of refuge during tornado warnings.

On Tuesday evening, April 26, I called Mother and suggested that she and Daddy go out the next morning and spend the day at Amy’s home where they could be close to her basement should tornadic weather develop.  A ‘homebody’ of the first order, my Mother would far rather stay in her familiar surroundings than go out to Amy’s, but between Amy and myself, we would push the issue and insist.  

The next morning, I did not feel well and slept in later than normal.  My cell phone had been turned off after battery charging the evening before.  When I got up mid morning and turned on my phone, there was a voicemail from my Daddy that froze me in my tracks.  Sounding very serious and a bit rattled, he said that a tornado had hit Hanceville early that morning.  From what he could tell, it caused terrible damage in Hanceville as well as on the street where they lived.  The house two doors down was completely destroyed, trees falling into the house, crushing it to bits.  Hundreds of trees were down, completely blocking their street as it goes toward Highway 31 toward town.  Shingles were blown off their roof and a large pine tree was toppled at the back of their yard.  He told me that he and Mama were heading out to Amy’s basement as many more storms were predicted. 

I could hardly breathe.  A tornado had hit Hanceville.  Hanceville, Alabama.  Surely Daddy was stretching things a bit.       

Multi-tasking has never been my forte, but in the next few moments, I managed to untangle my iPhone headset, plug it into my phone, locate The Weather Channel on the TiVo, find my sister’s phone number and dial it, albeit frantically!! Thankfully, both he and my Mother were out at Amy’s safe and sound.  Whew!!  After an update of what everyone knew regarding the Hanceville tornado (which wasn’t much,) I was able to take a breath, saying a prayer of thanks that Mama and Daddy along with their precious little home were safe!  Little did I realize that the Hanceville tornado was just the beginning of Alabama’s most horrific weather day in history.

The next couple hours found me glued to the television watching and listening to The Weather Channel’s tornado guru Dr. Forbes and Mr. Weather Channel himself, Jim Cantore detail the catastrophic march of this powerful storm across Alabama.  Here in Dallas, Texas, 700 miles away, I was on the phone back and forth with my sister as I watched the developing storms get closer and closer to Cullman.  In the kitchen trying to make a quick lunch, I could still hear the reports being clearly broadcast on The Weather Channel. Then, words that still ring in my ears as if just spoken, The Weather Channel announces “Live shot from a tower cam in Cullman, Alabama shows a tornado on the ground!”  It was noted that the tower cam was located at the water treatment facility in Cullman.  I knew exactly where that was: on Highway 278, only a few miles from Amy’s home, and it was heading exactly in her direction.

Fumbling fingers couldn’t locate Amy’s phone number quick enough.  The first words out of my mouth were “Are all of you in the basement?!?”  I then detailed the info I heard and the photo that was showing on the television.  Thank goodness for TiVo, I was able to run the live TV back and take a picture with my phone of the tornado heading toward Amy’s home, sending it to her via text.  The electricity at Amy and Rex’s home was already off and they were relying on the radio to give them weather updates.  

Then, I just stood in front of the television and watched the radar of the huge storm and the video replay of the tornado that was moving right through my hometown. Helpless. Horrified.  Holding my breath.  An F3 tornado heading directly toward my family, and here I was 700 miles away watching it all unfold.  

There has never been a moment in time when I felt as terrified or as helpless as I did in that moment.  Countless phone calls back and forth to Amy helped ease my fears as the afternoon progressed.  For after the main tornado went through the area, there would be one after the other moving their way for the next several hours.  

Facebook posts were frantically being sent as alerts from myself as well as other friends.  What we were hearing on the television, as the tornados approached and in the aftermath, began to reveal what a monster storm we were witnessing.  After the Cullman tornado, I logged my computer on to the Birmingham weatherman that any self-respecting Alabamian was listening to that day– James Spann.  The lives Mr. Spann helped save that day due to his continuous, informative and life-saving reporting are surely countless.  Hearing him describe the strength and power of the tornados moving through Tuscaloosa, then through Pleasant Grove and Birmingham was bone chilling.  His monologue never stopped, warning those in the storms path to take cover, offering suggestions for places of shelter and words of caution about remaining safe in such deadly weather.  

The days following this horrific weather event are filled with a continuing sense of disbelief.  Viewing the photographs and videos of the devastated towns and communities make the reality so many are facing seem like a long, never ending nightmare, totally ‘unreal.’  Usually, when watching a news report of a town hit by a tornado, it is just that:  town.  One town, maybe two.  Not this time.  This time it is hundreds of towns.  Hundreds.  My home town. The town where I went to graduate school.  The hometowns of many of my friends.  Yesterday, I happened to come across an article listing those who died in the storms.  Again, hundreds.  Such tragedy, such loss.  Alabama is grieving now for lives lost, for places lost, ways of life lost.  

Already, the clean up has begun.  As my Mother says, just “Back your ears and get to work.”  The good people of Alabama are collectively “backing their ears” and helping clean up the mess, and lending a hand to help family, friends and neighbors piece broken lives back together.  How proud I am to be from Alabama!  How proud I am of the people of Alabama!  Alabama will always be my ‘home’, and facing Alabama will ALWAYS make me proud!   

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