As you know, last week had some of the worst tornado activity in the history of the U.S. Many have been left without homes, whole towns have been nearly destroyed. Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee were hit the hardest. You can see some of the Google Earth before and after photos here. Just mouse over the photo to see the “after” image. More images of Alabama can be seen here. They were taken by a very talented photographer, Amanda Chapman. Please scroll down through her blog to see the unbelievable devastation left in the wake of last week’s storm. When you’re done, I’ll be here to tell you my own tale.
Done? Need to get a tissue to dry your eyes? I’ll wait.
Ready? Good. As Mrs. Mom loves to say, “hold on to yer butts!” It’s going to be a bit hair raising.
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Tornadoes just weren’t part of our weather vocabulary. About as close as any one in the PNW got to tornadoes was while watching The Wizard of Oz, when the tornado whisked Dorothy out of Kansas. Earthquakes, blizzards, flooding… Those were normal. Tornadoes just were not part of life there.
Flash forward to June 2009. We had a rare tornado cell go right over our house in Oregon.
In March of this year (2011), we discovered I cannot hear the tornado warning siren one town over, about 4 miles away. What we didn’t know is that we are surrounded by sirens. And as we learned on April 27th, I can hear some of the other sirens around us.
That fateful Wednesday morning, I woke up and hustled Dude out the door for his CRCT testing (state education standards testing). We were there a little before 8 a.m. Bad Pants had let me know that we were due for high winds and thunderstorms in the early afternoon, before I’d left, so I shouldn’t really stop to see the horses on my way home that day. At 8:30 a.m., BP texted me that our local tornado sirens were going off. Minutes later, I heard a loud, annoying buzz coming from inside the building we were in for testing. I had no idea what the noise was. Of the other 20 or so parents that were waiting with me, no one seemed alarmed. NO ONE got up to investigate. NO ONE moved to another room, away from the 20′ high floor-to-ceiling windows. NO ONE.
About 15 minutes later, I found a building official who told me the noise I heard was a weather radio. It had gone off signalling a high wind warning for the area. She kindly reset the weather radio to go off only for tornado warnings, as she had heard about the sirens going off near my home herself, on her way in to work. Then, she told me they had an emergency plan in place and filled me in on it, easing my mind.
Bad Pants texted me to tell me the sirens had gone off due to a pressure change from high winds. Everything was ok. He reiterated that I should not dawdle coming home though.
The trip home was uneventful. I’d noticed the sheer number of dead animals at the side of the road on the drive in and home. Odd, I know. But, I have a theory about that for another time. The important thing here is that they were all predators. All of them. Let’s just say it was extensive (and odd, don’t forget odd) for the sake of moving forward in the story.
Once home, Bad Pants filled me in on the tornado that hit Chattanooga, TN. Chattanooga is only a couple hours north of us, and very near where Barrow’s breeder lives. I started paying close attention to the weather reports online. The weather alert services I signed up for in March kept sending me messages that we were under Tornado Watch. I paid very close attention, even following The Weather Channel on Twitter.
As the afternoon progressed, we started hearing more and more reports about tornadoes hitting Alabama. Around 4:30 p.m., Barrow’s breeder popped up on Facebook, letting everyone know they were ok. A tornado had touched down in her front yard at 8:30 a.m. that morning and moved off into Chattanooga. They were all ok, with only minimal damage done to fences. Approximately twenty minutes after her Facebook posting, 2 more tornadoes struck her area and she fell silent.
Around 5 p.m. we were put on Tornado Warning. My phone went off every few minutes with warning messages from the weather alert services. (I believe I counted 5 tornadoes hitting Tuscaloosa, AL before 9 p.m.). Tuscaloosa is only a couple hours west of us. The storm was marching straight at us.
As the evening wore on, the air around us became denser. It was heavy, humid and hot. We sent Dude up to bed so he could get some rest as he had more CRCT testing in the morning. BP and I continued to watch the storm march in. By now, I had the song, “The Ants Go Marching” stuck in my head. As more and more tornado reports came in, worry really began to take hold.
Around 10:15 p.m., Rox got in my face and started licking my chin. I’ve learned this is her way of telling me a storm is coming, or, she really, really needs to pee. As I’d taken her out not long ago, in preparation for the thunderstorms, I knew it wasn’t the latter. Rox chooses to be annoying to get my attention, as she doesn’t like thunderstorms herself. Her joints felt like they were on fire to the touch. I gave her some aspirin, hoping it would help her be a little more comfortable. I was certain she was hurting.
Tornado sirens went off! I yelled for Dude, trying my best to wake him up. I ran upstairs into his room and shook him so hard I was afraid I was going to break his arm. It was hot. Like a baby wrapped too much and quite warm, Dude was difficult to wake. Just as I grabbed him to drag him bodily downstairs, he woke up. We ran downstairs to climb into our tornado shelter, a closet in my bedroom next to an old, covered over fireplace, the safest place in the house.
The wind screamed around the corners of our house. From our little closet, we heard thunder booming, drowning out the sound of the tornado sirens. Yes, sirens. We heard 4-6 different ones all told. And yes, I could hear them. With multiple sirens going off, fear really began to take hold.
I worried for my pets. The closet is too small to bring them into it. Instead, they were crated and their crates pushed into the hallway, with Roxanne in a down-stay next to them as we don’t have a crate for her. The cats huddled in the hall on their own, freaked out in their own right. I worried about my horses, 8 miles away, and hoping that my landlord was smart enough to leave all the horses turned out to pasture and not locked in stalls inside the barn.
I posted to Facebook and here on my blog, asking for people to please pray for the South. The storm that had practically wiped out parts of Alabama and Northern Georgia was at our door! My mind kept racing as to whether or not Dude would be able to go to testing the next morning, if it would be cancelled or rescheduled, or even if the building would still be there.
I don’t remember how long we stayed there. It felt like a long, long time in that hot, sweltering closet. Eventually, the sirens went off. We went back to watching the weather reports, closely tracking the storm. And when it looked like it was all done for a while, we sent Dude back up to bed.
No sooner had we done that than Bad Pants looked out the window to see a funnel cloud out our southern-facing windows. No tornado sirens were going off. No emergency text messages on my phone. And the funnel cloud was CLOSE. For the first time, terror truly struck my heart. I screamed for Dude to get downstairs and we all ran for the closet again.
No sirens. NONE. Wind was screaming around my house as we waited and waited for the tornado to hit. I believe we individually prayed more than we’d ever prayed before. Being in that closet without any sirens going off, without any way to know what was happening was terrifying. Was it going to hit us? Was it going to roar on by? What about the neighbors? The woods behind us? The hay field across the street? Had it touched down? How would we know when it would be safe to come out again?
Eventually, it got a bit quieter. Bad Pants ventured out of the closet, looking out the window. That particular storm cell had moved on. It wasn’t in sight.
We came back out of the closet again, checked the weather reports, checked our weather warnings. (Still on Tornado Warning). And then the reports started rolling in. The funnel cloud we saw moved off north-east of us, throwing cars and rolling semis on the freeway, east of here.
The storm had marched up to our area, broke apart to go around us to the north and south, and then form up again a few miles to the east of us. There were tornado reports to the South and North of us, but the funnel cloud we saw went right over us, missing us completely. How? I don’t know. I watched the storm on radar march right up to the freeway, just one mile from our house. One Mile. And then it broke up, parting like the Red Sea, to go around us and re-form to the East. We were spared!
But the night was far from over.
Wave after wave of thunderstorms hit us, each one holding the potential to be carrying a tornado within it. We’d watch the orange and red lines on the radar march up to us and then break up when it reached our area on the map, only to re-form on the other side. We had thunderstorms overhead. Loud, booming, house-shaking thunderstorms directly overhead. Lightening lit up the outside like daylight. But the tornado cells kept breaking up right before they reached us.
About 2 a.m., when he had calmed down, I put Dude to bed in our closet for the night. At least I knew he’d be safe there and I wouldn’t have to drag him bodily from upstairs into the closet or worry that I couldn’t get to him in time.
An hour later, at 3 a.m., the tornado warnings came off. Bad Pants and I went to bed, listening to the thunderstorms moving away from us, but prepared to jump into the closet if need be.
We didn’t get much sleep that night. I was up at 6 a.m., getting chores done and taking Dude to testing. The sun was shining brightly, the sky blue and cloudless. Driving in to testing, we saw a little wind damage. But the odd thing was that we saw score upon score of dead armadillos at the side of the road. Only armadillos. Bodies of armadillos that hadn’t been there the day before. The predators that had been dead at the side of the road before, all the dead critters from the day before, were GONE. Only bodies of armadillos littered the roadways.
Testing happened as scheduled, even though everyone was tired. Nothing stopped. Life moved forward. I checked on the horses on the way home. They were grazing peacefully, only stopping to call to me when I stepped out of my vehicle. Life around me was peaceful and normal. You’d have never suspected the chaos that had happened the night before unless you’d been here.
I went home and continued to keep an eye on the weather over Mrs. Mom. Johnny Reb was declining and the storms containing tornadoes were marching her way. As friends from all over continued to pray for her, Johnny Reb and the family during this time, those storms broke apart, leaving her only with some thunder showers.
Barrow’s breeder was able to get a message to us that they were ok, but the homes of many of their friends and neighbors had been destroyed. By the Grace of God, the tornadoes had missed them. They would be without power for 3-4 days, but her family was ok.
Be it a topographical anomaly or not, I fully believe the prayers of many kept Mrs. Mom and I safe last week during the days of terrible tornadoes. I thank those of you who sent out prayers to whatever deity you pray to, and those of you that just sent positive thoughts our way. The tragedy that befell Alabama and N. Georgia could easily have struck us as well.