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.