Thursday, April 28, 2011

Tornadoes--personal account

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.


Sarah Ahiers said...

Ugh i hate tornadoes. Do you guys have tornado sirens down there? Giant sirens at police stations and schools that go off when tornadoes are coming, so you know to take shelter even if you don't have a radio or tv nearby? I thought evry state had those, but found out recently that that's not true.
Why did you have to burn your stuff?
And as a child, our house had train tracks behind it and i was always worried i would sleep through an approaching tornado because it would just sound like one of the trains

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

This is powerfully written, Summer, and a reminder to all of us that the world is an unsteady place but we can and should help to steady each other. My heart is aching for all those whose lives were hit by these recent storms.

Sommer Leigh said...

This was a beautiful post, Summer, I hope lots of people read it. I was on Skype last night with a blog friend while she waited to hear about friends who went to school in the path of the tornado last night.

I have a similar tornado story as yours, though our house wasn't destroyed, we had to run outside to the nearest underground shelter while the tornado came down on us. Terrifying and a thing I can barely think about and remember to this day. It is easy to romanticize and imagine intense moments like this where people are carried out of rubble or become heroes for their neighbors. Most people have no idea how changed you are because of it.

Hannah said...

Wow, you almost had me in tears with you retelling. I know some people who have lived through tornados as well. It's not an easy thing to recover from. It's so fast and destructive that people who are untouched by it don't understand the devastation you can feel. I'm glad you had decent caring people to help you through your ordeal.

Jessica Ann Hill said...

Summer, I am nearly in tears. Tornadoes are scary, scary things. It's amazing the kind of destruction they can cause in so short a time, and the effects are certainly lifelong on those who experience them. I hope lots of people read this, and I'm so glad your family came out of that experience alive and that you had decent people there to help you. *hugs*

Linda G. said...

How terrible. And you -- so young when it happened. Something like that traumatizes anyone who lives through it, but a child...the mind just boggles. *hugs*

Teri Anne Stanley said...

Thanks so much for sharing this with us. I live in KY, we've been pretty lucky so far this season (only a few trees lost here and there) but when I was a kid, there was a terrible season like the one we are having now and people are still affected by it...almost 40 years later.
While what you went through is terrible, how amazing that you can share that experience and be a source of strength and hope to the people who are going through it now.

Wen Baragrey said...

My hometown of Christchurch here in New Zealand just had two very major earthquakes in the past six months, I understand some of what you, and others affected by such horrible events, feel.

You're quite right, you're changed for life. For us, with the latest quake, it took 26 seconds to change our city forever and take almost 200 lives. We'll never ever be the same. It's not possible to be because so much is gone that can never be rebuilt.

It leaves a mark on you that never, ever fades, I'm sure of that. For us, it's not being able to go into any building, ever, without working out an escape plan as you do. It's never parking near a big tree, or car parking building, or a brick wall. It's knowing exactly what you plan to do in the next quake (because after two so close together, you never, ever believe there isn't another coming).

My thoughts and prayers go out to you, and to all others affected by these dreadful events. I hope that you're all able to find some peace amongst it eventually. The kindness of strangers does make all the difference in the world. I hope that the response for all those in need is huge.


Old Kitty said...

Oh how awful! :-( I'm sorry for your rabbit and I'm sorry you went through this! Terrible.

Yes, I've read and seen the news about the devastation the tornadoes are wreaking over there. So many lives lost. Just terrible.

Take care

Anne Gallagher said...

I can't imagine what you went through. We had warnings yesterday and Monster Child was totally freaked. I'm sorry about your rabbit.

Marjorie said...

I lived in Kansas for a while as a child. I understand the fear of getting hit by a tornado. Fortunately I never did have to experience anything like what you have described. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. Looking at that picture I am amazed that your entire family survived.

Kristin Rae said...

Thank you for sharing this with us, Summer. I understand that it's hard to talk about. My mom and I say that we are weather traumatized because we've been flooded twice (the second time we pretty much lost everything, but as you said, things are just things), and we've had lightning strike and cause a fire in our attic (thankfully my mom was pretty quick with the fire extinguisher). Anytime a storm comes, I still go into a mild panic mode, making sure I know where I'd go, what I'd grab.
It really was amazing to see our friends, even friends we hadn't talk to in years, come and help us after the flood in October of '94--they gave us a place to live, let us borrow clothes and furniture, sifted through our soggy belongings to find things worth saving.
As Marjorie mentioned above, looking at that photo you shared, it really is a miracle you all survived. And I had no idea little fish could survive out of water like that.

Claudie A. said...

I am too far north to have to deal with tornados, and whenever I hear about hurricanes and other such weather, I am SO glad I live here. People here will complain about the snow and moving south but dear God, they have no idea what it is to deal with tornados.

This is an incredible post, and I coud barely breath through it. I spent the entire evening yesterday watching for the news. I have a friend in Tuscaloosa, and we *just* heard he was all right.

So, I guess, thank you for this post. It's so important not to forget what these events do to those caught up in them.

Susan Kane said...

Oh, my, Summer. To have survived something so horrific is amazing. The scars are something only you can see, but they are real. You must make this recounting into something bigger, and share it with others. God bless you, and keep you.

Summer Frey said...

Thank you for all the beautiful comments, everyone. I'm working on replying to those with email enabled, but wanted to thank those without.

And actually, Susan, I do have one physical scar from the tornado. We erected a tent in the yard to house our piano and some other stuff, and one of the poles kept coming apart. I tried to put it back together, and it slipped. Cut the inside of my arm open from elbow to wrist. Today the scar is only about three inches long, but it always reminds me.

Author Joshua Hoyt said...

Thanks for the post it is a difficult thing to endure. The experiences we have change us so much.

Samantha Sotto said...

That must have been terrifying. We don't get tornadoes in this part of the world. I can't even begin to imagine what an experience like that must be like.

Jules said...

I read this post this morning but did not have time to comment then. This struck such a chord in me, I share this experience with you just not to the same degree. My father was a fireman during the super outbreak of 74, I saw all of the emotional heartbreak first hand. And he was one of those helping hands. Thank you so much for sharing this because I'm just sick over all that happened. True Peace my friend.
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

The Words Crafter said...

I can't imagine what you went through. I grew up in a mobile home and learned early on that storms were not my favorite things, even a little bit.

We constantly practice fire drills at my daycare. We also practice for tornados and bombs. Last year, a child in our class saw a tornado and he'd get glazed and shakey every time it thundered.

Some people have a sick sense of humor. I'm sorry you had to be there for it.

All those people are in my thoughts and prayers......

Regina said...

The power of the people is a beautiful thing. I am sorry for what you endured during that time. I haven't had to deal with a tornado, but did lose everything in a house fire when I was in the fifth grade. Yes, it does change you.

Unknown said...

Oh Summer, you wrote this memory beautifully. Even though you told me the story once over coffee, I still had a huge lump in my throat and tears in my eyes as I read. My heart is broken for the people hurting right now from the storms. The devastation is incredible. Thanks for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing, darlin'. No snark today, just appreciation.

Talli Roland said...

Oh my God, Summer, I'm welling up reading this. How terrible, and how brave your family was, having to come through this and begin again. I'm so happy you all were okay.

Thank you for the reminder that what we have is fleeting, and we need to appreciate it.

Robin said...

Thank you so much for sharing. I think it is so important to put a face and a story on these tragedies. They are just events that happen. This is people's lives we are talking about.

Eryn said...

Excellently written. Being in the Pacific Northwest, tornadoes are completely outside of my frame of reference, but they still scare me so much. Alabama seems so far away from here, this brought it home.

Krispy said...

Thank you for sharing this, especially since I don't think there's been enough media attention on the situation in Alabama and Georgia. I barely knew it had happened.

This was a powerful, emotional post. I could feel it in my gut, and like Eryn, tornadoes are completely outside my frame of reference (West Coaster here).

Lola Sharp said...

I already know this story and had seen this picture, yet, this still moved me. I think this is my favorite post of yours. Thanks for sharing it with the world.

My heart and thoughts/prayers go out to those dealing with the aftermath of all those hurricanes, especially for those that lost loved ones.
The same goes for Japan and Christchurch, NZ., etc.


Sophia Chang said...

Thanks so much for sharing this Summer. Such a moving account.

And yes, people are quite insensitive; the jokes after the tsunami were perplexingly stupid.

Of course we're all glad that your family was alright and you're here with us today.

Portia said...

Oh, Summer, I had no idea. What a horrible experience. The photo makes my stomach curl. I can't imagine how you feel about storms, even now. *hugs*


Crystal Cook said...

Summer, I guess I missed this last week, and I'm so sorry that I did because I had no idea. I'm so sorry for you. But I'm glad you're physically ok. What a horrible thing to go through, the feelings you describe after sound like the worst kind of hell. I'll be thinking of you. :) Love and hugs,