Thursday, April 28, 2011

The morning after, and the days that followed

The next morning we rose in the dark, got Karen's things together by flashlight, and headed out to the airport. We didn't know for sure whether her flight would still be going, but it appeared that the airport was up and operating on generator power. We also hadn't had any contact with the other two ladies who were traveling with her, so we had no idea if they would show up. Cell phone service was all we had, but it was spotty and getting worse as time went on. Texting was the main source of communication.

Both ladies did show up, and amazingly the flight was still on, though an earlier flight had been cancelled. Secure in the knowledge that she was OK, I left Karen and headed back home through a eerily dark city. By the next day, when I was supposed to get Karen's call saying they had arrived at their destination, the only way I could get a signal was to drive out to the highway and park in the median. Once she called, I called everyone to let them know the team was safe then headed home.

The next five days were spent with Philip and me "baching-it", essentially camping out in our house, listening to the radio for information, and making daily treks to find gasoline and supplies. We traveled as far as we needed to each day to find towns with electricity. While there was gasoline in the ground at all the stations, without electricity they couldn't pump it out. There were so many power lines destroyed by the tornadoes that most of north Alabama was without power, and it wasn't going to get fixed anytime soon.

Each radio broadcast brought more information about the damage across the south. Each trek took us through areas of mind boggling devastation. Each day we pieced together a few more creature comforts.

Keeping our cell phones charged was the initial challenge, since they provided our only means of communication. Before long we remembered we had power inverters for the car that plugged into the lighter and provided 110v outlets. But that also meant we had to run the car to keep the battery from dying, which meant more gas we had to keep on hand.

Early on we wrestled through the crowds at Publix to buy a whole bag of batteries so we could keep the flashlights and radio operating. Publix stores all had generators, and amazingly their card readers were operating too, so we didn't have to use our precious cash.

We also made great use of our little solar accent lights from around the house. Each day I would stick them in a bucket in the morning sun, then move the bucket to follow the sun as the day went on so they would get a maximum charge. By the time night rolled around we had several excellent light sources that lasted through the night without using a single battery!

But the real coup came when Philip's lifelong friend Adam came over and invited us to dinner one night. It had been nearly 48 hours since the power went out, and the stuff Karen had left in the refrigerator to sustain us while she was gone wasn't going to last much longer.

It turned out that the Middletons had been supplied with two generators, but their reason for needing the second had disappeared. They offered it to us and we jumped at the opportunity! After a delicious meal, we hauled the generator home and fired it up. First to get connected was the fridge. Though the ice from the ice maker had melted all over the kitchen floor, it appeared that the food was going to be alright.

Next we ran extension cords upstairs to run fans in the bedrooms. The weather after the tornadoes had been mercifully kind, but the house was still stuffy after being without air conditioning for two days.

As the days went on, we added more and more things to the generator, always listening to see if it sounded overburdened.

We hooked up some lamps in the living area so our evenings were more cheery. Then we decided it couldn't hurt to try plugging in the computer and cable modem. The generator held just fine and amazingly, we had internet!

Emboldened by our success, we decided that if the internet was coming through the cable...maybe TV channels were as well. We plugged in the TV and DVR and sure enough! We had TV! Roughing it wasn't so bad after all!

With the TV came our first chance to see pictures of the devastation. It was mind boggling. Especially Tuscaloosa, and smaller towns like Phil Campbell that had basically been erased from the map.

Each passing day brought news of power returning to more of the state, and finally to sections of Huntsville. When the power finally came on at our house there was even a sense of loss. Despite all the devastation around us, our family was safe, and the time spent living through the hardships (such as they were) will always be a special memory.

Lines down just North of Arab.

Working with the chainsaw crew to clear trees.

With the Marines, clearing trees.

Gas station destroyed just North of Arab.

Trees snapped, houses destroyed.

Lines down over a destroyed house.

Shelves at WalMart in Athens were cleaned out.

Working the chain saws.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

April 27 - The Day of the Tornadoes

For days prior to April 27th, forecasters in Alabama had been warning that conditions were right for some really bad weather ahead. This was nothing new. The local weather guys sometimes seemed to imply that every thunderstorm that came along was poised to sprout a tornado that would erase Huntsville from the map. And from the time we first moved to Huntsville we'd been hearing stories about the famous "Airport Road Tornado" back in the 80's. Some of our friends still appeared to be pretty scarred by the whole thing.

But for 15 years we never saw one.

Sure, there was the occasional tornado, but they always seemed to be attracted to mobile homes somewhere out in the boonies. And even the recent one that touched down in downtown Huntsville didn't hurt anyone or do too terribly much damage.

So we reacted to the warnings on April 27th with an understandable yawn.

That is not to say that the skies didn't look impressive! Dave joined several of his coworkers outside that morning to watch as an extremely ominous cloud approached from the west. (Full disclosure: they had all been run out of their offices to the safe areas because a tornado warning had been declared.) While the folks who still had any sense huddled in the downstairs conference room, Dave and his coworkers who didn't stood outside, took pictures, and talked about how they all hoped to get to see a tornado! Some had, and their stories were heard with ever greater interest as the winds picked up.

Several tendrils teased their way down from the cloud that morning, but ultimately none seemed to have the energy to form into a full tornado.

Another false alarm.

But the worst was apparently yet to come.
By the middle of the afternoon, stories were starting to come in that a number of tornadoes had touched down across Alabama. When Dave finally left for home the newscasters were starting to sound a little frantic, so Dave kept his camera handy and watched the clouds closely as he drove. Sure enough, at a traffic light just before home, Dave spotted what was later recorded as the "Lilly Flagg" tornado, for the road where it touched down.

Once home, the family fired up the TV and watched the continuing coverage by all of the local stations. Things were getting ugly fast.

And then the power went out.

It took us a while to find our battery operated radio, but we did. And we actually had batteries for it! There were functional flashlights as well. Those would prove very useful later since Karen was packing to leave on a mission trip to Vietnam the following morning. Assuming the airport was still operational.

Our cell phones still worked, and before long we got a call from Tucker who was at school down in Tuscaloosa. He seemed pretty upset that we hadn't tried to call him. I mean, REALLY upset. It became apparent that something horrible had happened in Tuscaloosa, but between the power outage and the local radio coverage we hadn't heard anything about it. Tuscaloosa had taken a direct hit by a massive tornado.

Tuck had been at work when it hit and before long, broken and bloodied people started making their way to the Rec Center for shelter. It was the start of a nightmarish few days in Tuscaloosa, and we were awfully glad to see Tuck again when he finally got home!

Sometime later he sent this picture showing the path of the tornado in relation to his apartment and Morgan's. Yikes. The brown streak shows the center of the tornado path, but reports later said it was somewhere around a half-mile wide or wider. Talk about threading the needle!

We fielded several more calls throughout the evening from family and friends who were just becoming aware of the devastation across the state. We stayed glued to the radio, got Karen all packed, and made our plans for the morning.

Sleep didn't come easy, but it finally came.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Snow, snow, and more Huntsville?

Christmas is always a special time of year, but this one went past special and headed right toward magical!

This was our first Christmas with Erin, our new daughter-in-law, so there was naturally some small amount of anxiousness about how our family traditions would mesh with her family's. It's the same rite of passage that every family has to go through when their children get married, but for both us and the Perrys is was our first time to tread those waters.

Well needn't have worried, of course, because Erin jumped right in as if she'd always been part of our traditions. As it happens, her family normally does their big family dinner and gathering on Christmas Day, and we have always done ours on Christmas Eve so there was no conflict at all. Erin even offered to sit with the boys on the steps for our traditional photo before we allow the boys to come into the family room to see what Santa has brought! What a trooper :-)

As the presents were being opened someone looked outside and noticed that it was snowing! We've lived in Huntsville for over 15 years now and, while it has snowed a few times over the years, it had never happened on Christmas Day! We ended up getting about 3 inches and had a great time watching the dogs play in it and taking pictures of the spectacle. Dave dutifully shoveled off the back deck and the sidewalk leading to the garage. He had to use a small shovel that made the task take twice as long, but then who has a snow shovel in Alabama?

When the presents were all opened, the cinnamon roles eaten, and the newlywed couple packed off to the Perry's for their next round of celebrations, we counted ourselves blessed for such a memorable Christmas.

Who knew that the snow would return again in just a couple weeks!

On January 10th it did, and with a vengeance! It snowed, and snowed, and snowed. And since Jan 10th was a Monday, there was the hope (soon realized) that school would even be cancelled! That had happened before in Huntsville for far less snow (once even for a forecast of snow that turned out to be incorrect - blush!), but this time it was legitimate! By the time it was over we had 8 inches piled up on the back deck! Before long even businesses were closing down, including Dave's job. Huntsville is just unprepared for that much snow and it took days for the city to clear the streets enough to make it possible to get to either work or school.

Thus freed from the cares of normal everyday life :-) we took full advantage of the situation. We made a snowman, did our best to sled in the wet, sticky snow, romped with the dogs, and generally reverted to childhood for a few days. It was a winter wonderland of fun!

After it was over, over the next couple of weeks, there were numerous forecasts of more possible snow to come. Both at work and in the schools, folks started to get concerned about all the days off and how they would have to be made up at some point. Somehow, the magic was quickly giving way to dread each morning as we watched the forecast.

But Dave found a way to fix it.

He finally went out and bought a snow shovel.

And it never snowed again.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Gerrit and Erin get Married

All of those old folks telling us through the years that time would slip away and before we knew it our boys would be grown were proven true in August. Our first born son got all growed up, graduated from college with two degrees, got married to the most wonderful girl we've ever met, and the two of them moved to Houston.

Once there, Gerrit began his career with Exxon Mobil and the two of them have settled into life as if they'd been married for years. We had a chance to visit them in October and had a wonderful time seeing the sites and spending time with them.

Now we're looking forward to seeing them again for Thanksgiving!

Wow, time sure does fly!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A satisfactory end to one journey, and the beginning of a new one.

It took nearly four months, but Dave's journey through unemployment finally ended on May 17th. In some ways that seemed like a long time, with all the resumes, applications, interviews, possibilities, and disappointments. But looking back now it seems more like an unlooked-for break from all the stresses and worries built up after nearly 29 years of working life.

The time off gave Dave a chance to refocus and get his perspective back, plus take care of the huge list of "to-do's" he'd been meaning to get around to in his free time. All the old family video tapes are now converted to DVD, indexed and cataloged. The back of the house got a fresh coat of paint it's been needing since last summer. The old bent-up storm door got replaced. The branches from the huge oak tree next door that were scraping the roof are now pruned. And the grass and shrubs around the house have NEVER looked so good!

Best of all, the extra time spent at home with Karen was a great opportunity catch a glimpse of what retirement together might look like in a few years. It looks like it's going to be AWESOME!

Thus rested, recharged, and ready, Dave begins the employment journey anew. Hopefully for the last time :-)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

An Unexpected Vacation

In late January this year, Dave became an unemployment statistic. The Army program he had been working on through his company, i3, had an unexpected budget shortfall, and in a matter of days half the civilian engineering force was unceremoniously asked to clear out their offices.

Using the three weeks of vacation he had saved up, Dave began the process of searching for another job while still under the cover of i3. That kept a paycheck coming in for a while, but eventually even that dried up and i3 had to let him go.

Interestingly, the money didn’t seem to stop coming in. First there was the refund on our mortgage escrow. It seems we had overpaid what was necessary for our property taxes last year by a good bit, so they sent us a check. Then there were our tax refunds, from both federal and state, which should arrive any day now. Plus the i3 severance check. Karen also started noticing that her grocery money seemed to be multiplying. Every week when she went to put in what she normally budgets for groceries, there was already enough there to cover things.

We had to leave the company medical plan and start on COBRA, which we weren’t looking forward to, since it normally costs and arm and a leg. But it seems there was a little provision in the federal stimulus package last year that cut COBRA payments by 2/3! And it turns out that the provision was scheduled to end just days after we applied.

The outpouring of support from friends, coworkers, and even strangers has been amazing. We’ve long preached to others that accepting generosity from folks who care about you is as much an act of service as the giving, but it sure looks different from the other side :-) Our hearts have been touched by cards, phone calls, emails, gift certificates, and roughly a million offers to personally shop Dave’s resume around.

The search for a job still continues, now 40 days on, but our hearts are full of gratitude and peace. God has granted us an awesome gift of seeing life from an angle we never expected, and the view of His grace from here is pretty awesome.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Christmas break 2009

Christmas this year took on special significance for our family. Gerrit will soon be graduating from college, marrying Erin, and moving to Houston in the new year, so there's no telling when we'll see them for Christmas again! Tuck is happily adapting to college life at the University of Alabama. And Philip is rapidly approaching driving age. Our little family is steadily sprouting wings and leaving the nest!

So, we wanted to make the most of the time we had together. For Dave that implied more than just family dinners and board games, though. Not being sure when he'd have all of his home-grown man-power together again, he decided it was time to purge the garage, the attic, and just about everything else that wasn't tied down. We hired a construction-sized dumpster and started throwing away the accumulated junk from 14 years living in the same house. After three days we had just about filled a 30 cubic yard container. The fact that we had that much junk was more than a little embarrassing, but the sense of relief we felt when the truck came to haul it away was wonderful!

Having completed our "big chore" for the week, we set our minds to more entertaining pursuits, like making graham cracker houses! As anyone who knows us will suspect, it turned into quite the competition. We split into four teams of two: Karen with our visiting friend Carolyn, Dave with Philip, Gerrit and Erin, and Tuck and Morgan. The results were quite impressive, and each team claimed victory for one reason or another, though Dave is sure that his "architecturally correct" recreation of Notre Dame cathedral (complete with flying buttresses!) stole the show :-)

On Christmas day we packed up our rented Expedition and took to the road to go see Dave's parents in Charleston. We normally get a chance to see them with the extended family in Lexington at Thanksgiving, but since it hadn't worked out this year, heading to Charleston seemed the logical thing to do.

Since Erin hadn't been to Charleston before, we had the perfect excuse to tour the city again. After driving around the city and seeing the sites, Erin and Gerrit took the historic carriage tour while the rest of us strolled through the market.

Dave's folks rolled out the red carpet for us, continually offering their hospitality in the form of more food than an army could possibly eat. The conversation was great, fueled by collections of letters Dave's mom had saved through the years, and by Grandad's reminiscences from his thirty years in the Navy.

One particularly special evening, the guys all bundled up and sat out on the back deck, puffing on cigars that Gerrit had given Tucker for his 19th birthday, and listening to Grandad tell some pretty amazing stories. No one seemed to notice the cold until we'd been out there for hours.

Eventually though, we had to pack up and make the long drive back to Huntsville, then turn our minds back toward school, work, and our regular lives. But the holiday gave us one last thrill by dumping snow on Huntsville just as school was resuming, giving us an unexpected additional holiday as schools and roads were closed for the next couple of days.