Last night, the lives of thousands of people changed. Sometimes we get so caught up in our day-to-day lives and stresses that we forget, or never even realized, that everything can be taken from us in less than thirty seconds.
On March 27, 1994, my family and I were hit by two tornadoes at once. My grandparents were over for lunch after church--it was Palm Sunday. The temperature was around 84 degrees and the humidity was astronomical, but no rain. No thunderstorms. Just heavy clouds and that lingering, oppressive heat.
We sat around the living room talking and laughing, and I remember my mom and Meme (grandmother) started talking about tornadoes--in the abstract. We lived in a little 3 bedroom ranch on a crawlspace. They were wondering if we should go into the crawlspace in the event of a tornado.
About two minutes later, all of the trees in the front yard whipped toward the ground, leaves flipping upside down. The sky took on the ugly green cast that only a tornado heralds.
And then, over the hill directly in front of our house, a massive, two-tailed tornado rose up.
I was seven, turning eight in about a month. I remember my grandmother scream "get in the hallway!" She got in first, followed by me and my brother. My dad, remembering some old wives tale, ran into the two bedrooms and opened the windows--hoping to alleviate air pressure or something.
Then he got next to my mom in the hall. Our hall wasn't long enough for six people. My grandfather--Papa--was standing up at the end of the hallway in the living room, facing the tornado.
I don't think I'll ever forget this, and I'll admit that I still cry every time I talk about it (I'm crying right now). I watched my dad stand up to grab Papa, and in that moment I screamed "Daddy, no!"
And then the tornado hit.
We found out afterward that the main tornado was an EF-4, but another smaller tornado had come at us from the other side, and they just so happened to meet in the middle.
We all remember different things from the heart of the storm. It only lasted for about fifteen seconds. My parents and grandparents heard the freight train sound. I didn't, and neither did my brother.
My mom heard her 55-gallon fish tank explode.
I heard silverware rattling in the drawers, like someone was opening and slamming them shut.
The floor joist snapped between me and my brother, and he said he thought he was being thrown out into the sky. The floor sank just enough for part of my head to get trapped beneath the bookshelf in front of us.
When the tornado passed, people were there immediately. I'm not even sure how they got there so fast. Our neighbors, of course--and total strangers. Some said they saw the tornado hit our house from the road. All I know is that within a few minutes, people I'd never seen before in my life were helping us crawl out of the rubble of our house.
A stranger carried me out of the rubble--I was barefoot--and into a clear section of the yard beside my brother. I don't remember this, but I was screaming, over and over. My mom slapped me to make me stop. Power lines were down all over the yard. Our rabbit was dead.
We have an album of the house, but I only have one picture scanned on the computer. This was a few days later:
Most people couldn't believe that we had all lived through the tornado. The only injury was my grandfather, whose ankle got broken. They carted him up the road in a wheelbarrow to meet an ambulance that couldn't make it, due to all the debris. Our cat turned up about a month later--she'd gone almost feral in the meantime. And one of the goldfish went on to live for five more years, even though he'd lived on a pile of gravel for three days before someone found him.
We had to burn everything we owned. Looking back now, we know that we'd been given false information, but at the time didn't want to take the risk. The day that they burned our stack of stuffed animals, Mom took us out for lunch. The first stuffed animal I got afterward was a little dragon from the therapist both of us kids were seeing for post-traumatic stress.
What I'm saying is this:
What happened last night, even to those who were fortunate not to have lost lives, is going to change them forever. For about a year after the tornado, my mom would burst into tears whenever it would just rain. It's only been within the last few years that I haven't gone into hiding or gotten extremely nervous during a strong thunderstorm. Two years ago, I was stuck at work during a tornado watch, and some ignorant person thought it was funny and said there was a funnel cloud outside. I didn't know they were joking, and I had a full-on panic attack--couldn't breathe, almost fainted, shaking and crying and moaning. Two years ago.
I will never forget the kindness of strangers. The outpouring of help--people who'd never seen us, didn't know our story stopped to help when we began cleaning up the rubble.
The Salvation Army and the American Red Cross provided everything for us in the months after. I'll never forget that, either.
My family was fortunate to have escaped relatively unscathed. Things are just things, after all. They were all replaced eventually.
I know some of what the people in Alabama and northwest Georgia are going through right now, but as traumatizing and horrifying as just the tornado was for us, I can't even imagine adding in the pain of losing someone with it. It's the kind of thing you will never, ever get over.
I don't know what my point is. This post wasn't easy for me to write. I don't like to talk about the tornado, because it still upsets me, makes me shake and cry, like I said.
But despite all the horror, we learned a lot of amazing lessons in humanity. As vile as the world sometimes seems, there are people out there who have good, true hearts, who won't hesitate to help a family in need, to carry a screaming little girl out of the ruins of her home.
Be one of those people.