One year ago today, after spending the previous eight months doing everything I could to find a way back to Tuscaloosa, a good friend sent me a text message.
Put on the tv. Tuscaloosa got hit by a tornado. Looks like it hit the university. Please tell me you're in GA.
It had been gray and awful all day. We knew storms were coming in from the midwest, and we knew they were bad. I also knew -- because I still read the Tuscaloosa News online most of the time, and because I "liked" the City Schools on Facebook -- that school had been cancelled that day.
Not released early. Cancelled. That had never happened the entire time we lived there. This was a big deal and everyone knew it, but tornadoes touch down, cause a little damage, and are over. This can't be as bad as tearing up the entire university.
It was afternoon, and for a change, Mick was home. (I don't mean to make light of this, but the surest way for there to be tornado weather is for Mick to be out of town, so for him to be home was strange.) All day, we had the living room tv on the weather radar. I called for Mick.
"Hey! M--- says that Alabama got hit by a tornado. On campus! Come upstairs and watch the news!"
In Alabama, they have James Spann at ABC 33/40, and he is by far the best weatherman ever to walk this earth, and I don't say that now because of everything that happened a year ago. I said it then, and I said it before then. He is amazing. He keeps us company at night when the weather is bad. He tells us what to do. He is on our televisions, saying "This is serious. Get to your safe spot and take cover." He is omnipresent, and he takes seriously what so many people don't (or didn't), and impresses upon us to do the same. It's not just a rainy day. Pay attention. Don't be stupid. Those sirens mean something. And you won't necessarily get sirens in time. I'm here. Your show is interrupted. Pay attention. Don't be stupid. Stay off the roads. Get inside. Be ready to get to your safe place.
We knew there were storms -- severe storms -- because we saw they'd hit Mississippi. The thing in metro Atlanta is, if you look to your west, it's coming to you. It's not as crazy as New England, with the lakes and the Atlantic and twenty-seven different weather patterns based on where in-between the two you fall. If it's in Mississippi, it's coming to Alabama, and if it's in Alabama, it's coming to Atlanta.
We don't have James Spann, or anyone remotely close, in metro Atlanta, and we don't even have tornado sirens. So we were watching the Weather Channel.
And then we saw the initial reports from Tuscaloosa, and my friend, who knew how desperately I wanted to go back to Tuscaloosa permanently, sent another message that stays with me to this day:
Don't you sometimes feel like you weren't meant to be somewhere? God meant for you to be someplace else this time.
I did feel that, but I also felt a terrible sense of survivor's guilt, in a sense. I wanted to be there. I wanted to help. I wanted to see it, because the devastation was so immense on the news, it couldn't possibly be real, right? We couldn't get enough news footage. We learned pretty quickly that the tornado actually spared the university. But it tore out six miles of Tuscaloosa, a mile wide on the ground in some parts. It was unreal, and we needed to feel a part of it, to find a way to make sense of it, to make it real. We wanted to reach through the tv and be there.
It took us a few weeks to be able to get to Tuscaloosa after the tornado. They had no power, they had so many unpassable roads, we couldn't go help and labor with two kids. We could sign up to volunteer, but to do what? We'd be in the way. That's not helping. The way we helped was to collect donations here, and we collected a LOT.
Two weeks later my sister and I loaded up the kids and a ton of donations and went over. We could see the damage as far West as Birmingham, and we followed the reverse path of the storm all the way into Tuscaloosa. I wrote an email to a friend about that, and about cresting that first hill on 15th Street as we came into town from Hillsboro St., but I'll spare you the details here.
It looked like the footage you see on tv -- footage of war zones, that is. The skyline was bizarre and we could see far. Too far. Through places where there used to be neighborhoods, and which now looked like the surface of the moon. We tried to remember what was in certain places.
Was this Hokkaido? Or this? What used to be here?
At one point, we pulled over to the mall parking lot and sat and cried.
I still cry. I trembled when I saw the footage last April 27, and more on April 28 and in the days following, and I cried two nights ago when I saw a special about the tornadoes that touched down everywhere across the country last April. And I didn't lose anybody, but I still feel a sadness I can't explain. I hate how melodramatic that sounds -- like the people you see on tv who sob uncontrollably about some celebrity they never met and who, I admit, I chalk up as losers. Shame on me. Tuscaloosa was my make-me-sob-like-a-baby-when-they-die celebrity, I suppose, and I cry for the people who did everything right and it wasn't enough, and I cry for the people who lost family, and I cry for the devastation, and I cry because I wasn't there, as selfish as that is.
Let me say two things.
First, I pray for everyone that Tide Loads of Hope never has to come to anyplace you hold dear. Because it means things are badder than you want to know.
Second, God bless the people of Tuscaloosa -- those who lost their lives, those who lost loved ones, those who lost their stuff, and those who did everything they could to help. And God bless the people of Alabama, who rose together to help their own. It's been amazing to live here and to live through and witness the strength, and generosity, and kindness of so many people helping just because it's what you do. It reminds me how much good there is in this world.
There's still a long road ahead. Tuscaloosa will never be the same. I will never be the same. My kids will never be the same. (CAM still prays at night for Jesus to "help fix Alabama where it ripped.") But through it all, yes, we're strangely stronger.
God truly has blessed Tuscaloosa.
Thanks for reading.