Ring Side Seats: The Alabama April Tornadoes

Valley After the Storm by Red Haircrow
Valley After the Storm by Red Haircrow

The city was dark and silent beyond anything it had known in recent history. Even the stars seemed concerned, reluctant to show until early morning hours.

With distressing finality, a hum and muffled thump, all electricity had ceased. A gloomy, ominous sky had brooded between gouts of blinding rain, lightening, thunder, and winds so strong it lay trees over within seconds. After the near incessant shriek of sirens through a day more akin to night, it was terrifying.

We were without a batteried radio to know exactly what had taken place, but from my experience of living through two other serious tornadoes, besides regular severe weather, it was the “silence after the storm.” I knew something serious had happened. The air was dead, heavy and cooling noticeably. In 1989, when a tornado had ripped throug Airport Road in southeast Huntsville, taking away part of the building I was in, when I stepped outside afterwards, improbably it had begun to snow. Now, 27 April 2011, not only Huntsville, but most of central and north Alabama, was again locked in the middle of unfolding tragedy. There was more severe weather on the way.

As a private chef, I didn’t have to go out to serve my clients and could have cried off, but living fairly nearby as opposed to the housekeeper and nurse who lived several miles north of our neighborhood, I went anyway. Dinner was the primary aim, but my client’s wife is completely bed-ridden, a virtual paraplegic attached to vital machines to keep her alive. I left early to help, and I made their home just as another front hit.

Open to the elements, the husband was struggling to get their generator started in the garage. I hurried inside and though the artificial lung going had a residual charge, she struggled to breathe, blue around the eyes and mouth already, where her face wasn’t flushed and wet with perspiration. I thought of the people without generators, who didn’t live in houses worth near a million dollars. As the generator roared to noisy life, she settled somewhat, nodded to me that she was alright. She’s a writer as well, internationally published multiple times, with award winning screenplays and former director of theatre leagues. Her mind, sharp as two-edged sword still, she exudes enormous personality, but the body is nearing failure.

The client was understandably subdued but still wanted his Scotch, appetizers and dinner along with a bottle of wine. His wife could eat nothing. Dinner complete, I hurried home but carefully observed the sky above, the speed limit and the fact all street intersections were now 4-way stops due to the outtage.  People blazed by at high speeds, irregardless of others. I saw so many near collisions, completely unnecessary, and had one of those moments where I wished I were back in uniform.

At home, my son was greatly relieved to see me and wisely was in the house unlike several children whose parents were lounging outside watching them play. The wind was rising yet again, another squall line was on the horizon. From the car radio I’d learned what places had been hit thus far. My household battened down, watchful, listening, thinking of friends who’d been directly in the path of the tornadoes. We hadn’t heard from them as phones, both land and cell, were down. I’d learned there’d been great damage and loss of life already. You’d think those idiots outside would have better sense. Maybe they’d never been in a tornado before. You don’t play around or take needless chances.

By lit candle, some providing light and others heating water for tea on a trivet I’d rigged up using VHS tapes and a sprung chaffing dish holder, the water heated quickly in disposable aluminum panes. My mother and son played Gin Rummy and I settled to read a book. I didn’t have any particular concerns though my two exams were due by midnight. I reasoned the power would be restored the next day and I could catch up. We simply would have a quiet night and find out tomorrow what needing doing and who needed help.

The 28th was beautiful, absolutely and perfectly pristine as only a day after terrible circumstance can be, but the power wasn’t restored, and taking stock of our food and household goods by day light, we found we had only a few candles, and like many others, many perishable edible items. We had enough canned goods for several days, two 24 packs of bottled water, but thawed meats that needed cooking immediately.  The day had been beautiful, absolutely and perfectly pristine as only a day after terrible circumstance can be.

My father left, driving around looking for supplies, but everything had been bought up that could, especially essentials. He informed us gas stations were also sold out. This was going to be a problem. Due to the weather the previous evening, I had not stopped to fill-up as I’d intended. I had perhaps two days worth of gas going strictly to work and home again.

We had a small propane fueled grill, but opening it found that my father hadn’t cleaned it after last use months ago. It was foul with rotten meat and rancid oil. I could have thrown it over the back fence, or conversely sat it on his favorite recliner chair. We salvaged a rack from it, and my son and I went wood collecting as there was plenty scattered about. We needed to eat, not waste what we had. Utilizing a large soup pot, we got a fire started and I set to smoking fish first on the rack, then cooked lunch and dinner for the day: boiled potatoes and a smoked ham cooked with cabbage.

Starting a fire isn’t hard to do if you have matches, or like us, a lighter, but the methodical nature of the task of keeping it going is quite different. Feeding it, nurturing it, ever vigilant if it becomes depressed and wan. We’d sacrificed a tattered copy of “The Persian Boy” by Mary Renault, as swift tender, page by page. My son, regularly ripping a page out, read part of it then handed it to me, announced he planned on reading it one day in its entirety. He said it seemed very interesting. How ironic, he’d never given it a chance before. I hoped he’d follow through.

The afternoon made me appreciate anew how important the role of the fire-keeper was in ancient history. It had taken hours for the fire to reach and hold the level of heat necessary to safely cook our food. Once everything was ready, we ate, mostly in silence, then played cards and read again, taking advantage of the light. Our cat, a small, particularly vocal black cat who was usually underfoot or in the middle of any gathering demanding attention was absent. Since the storms, he wouldn’t allow himself to be touched, was eerily silent and stayed mostly to my son’s room, which was the darkest in the house. The times you did see him out in search for food or relief, he seemed still terrified.

Smelling heavily of wood smoke and sunburned, I went to work as usual, of course they had power, and besides they have a gas stove and oven so dinner as usual: Roast Cornish Hen with Root Vegetables preceded by an appetizer of caviar and poached eggs. I hated to leave the light and was welcomed to stay, but I had to return to my son. After charging my cell, though it couldn’t get a call out or in, I headed home.

He was anxious and refused to sleep in his room, then went through a time of hyperactivity to distract himself. In the near darkness, that’s not a good thing, as he’s accident prone at the best of times. It’s not usual but I gave him one of his prescribed anti-anxiety tablets. He said he didn’t know how I can lay for hours unasleep and do nothing, while he is always moving unless he is asleep, and sometimes even then. His other parent contributed the hyperactivity. I happened to pass along my sleep disorder. I’ve not slept through a night in thirty years and have become used to functioning on minimal sleep, but it plagues him regularly. It’s not a life I wish him to have although we do try to do the most natural way of living to avoid artificial means, sometimes it’s necessary for “extra” help because if not, it affects his moods, school work and health.

You’ll have to understand, we had begun breaking down shelves and packing for our upcoming move to Germany, so everything was disordered and quarters very tight in my room/office except a small futon. He insisted he could sleep on the floor and piled random blankets and pillows between the stacks of books. We’d spared a single candle for light, but I soon blew it out and opened the blinds so we could receive first light as my window faces east. It was like an alien world the utter darkness outside. One could barely discern the ridge of nearby Green Mountain from the deep indigo of the sky.

With my recent studies plus my long-time interest on the subject, I thought of the place we were moving back to, for it had once been subsumed under the Russian front towards the end of World War II. Those left behind in the little town near the Polish border had been near the end of their reserves, the last gas, candles, fuel and food. Did you run before the Red Army, or stay behind to protect your home? Did you leave everything and go, try to take your best on the road? My son, when asked, said he didn’t know. Soon the medication took effect, probably to both of our relief.

I continued to think, putting myself back in that era of Germany. Would I have risked my son continuing to listen to propaganda that all Germany must continue to resist, or would I have left everything behind to give him the chance of a better life? Millions had died in the war by then, and then still more as they were “rolled over,” but first being subjected to rape, torture, humiliation and worse before the final darkness came. Some people still think it was apt and deserved fate for the German people, as they believed them all culpable. Whatever your opinion, it was the one of the darkest times in history, and a chilling, sober pillow.

* * * *

Conserve everything. Ration water, fuel especially as there was no ETA on when gas trucks could get through was broadcast repeatedly. Power was going to be out for at least a week because the nuclear power plant that supplied the valley, Browns Ferry, had been damaged. I awoke to the sounds of lawns being mowed and watered, however. Incredulous, I stood watching a moment on the way to collect more wood. We were having to go further afield along the back meadow of our house, along the stream to supplement the salvaged planks we’d gathered from our garage and yard.

I sacrificed Tanith Lee’s “The White Serpent” (not one of my favorites of hers) for starter that day. We’d been able to procure batteries, two D cells for eight dollars each (four packs), some candles and a bag of charcoal that cost fifteen dollars. I’d been lucky I’d stopped at the ATM the afternoon before the worst of the storms so I had some cash for the moment, but since all banks, etc. were closed now, I worried for the people who didn’t have or were expecting deposits. It would get worse before it got better.

Continuing to save the canned goods, we grilled bacon and used the Dutch Oven to cook biscuits made with the last of the good milk, of which I’d used a spot in my cup of Earl Grey. We ate hardily if somewhat strangely including the last items from my son’s usual school lunch: potato chips and chocolate chip cookies and lots of Mello Yello. It’s funny when you have little other distraction the thoughts turn to food more often, or so it seemed.

Again, the day was spent in our western facing den. Tired of cards, my mother and son had moved onto board games. I was enjoying rereading the last three books in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner Universe, and since we had batteries for the portable stereo we listened to CD’s, by popular demand 80’s music, and we had a good time singing and dancing to David Bowie and others. Sometimes we switched over to the radio, local station 94.1 was the best. Its DJ Toni was sincere and doggedly answering all incoming calls giving out information on where to get needed goods like diapers, baby formulas, water and non-perishables.

Before spoilage, Wal-Marts were open handing out things like fruits and vegetables to people with small children, older and disabled people. Publix supermarkets had fired up their generators and were pretty much business as usual selling everything left, and the people who had money were hoarding it up. Those who lived from paycheck to paycheck, like so many these days, were really having it hard. You saw some people buying out dozens of bags of charcoal, starter fluid, ice and even diapers and the like, obviously planning to resale at exorbitant rates. DJ Toni said they should be ashamed of themselves and gave the number to report “price gougers”. When people called into the program complaining about those asking for hand-outs, she rebuked them as well.

One person even scornfully said, “These people knew the storms were coming. Why didn’t they get out and buy what they needed!” How very stupid.

“If they’d had money to get out and buy what was needed, I am sure they would have,” said Toni. “I appreciate your need to vent, and obviously you have money, but this is not the time. These people need help and those who can need to step up and get it done.” Total agreement with that.

But there were other cases of people opening up grills and letting neighbors come to cook at they would. The sharing of meals that couldn’t be stored in refrigerators later. There were local restaurants with gas stoves serving up their wares, some selling it at very minimal rates or giving it away, as their heart moved them.

Against strong admonition from authorities, the general public was asked not to drive around trying to see wrecked sites, and a dusk to dawn curfew was in place and strongly enforced. People trying to top off tanks were told not to seek stations still pumping if they could. Highways were jammed with people, those who had tried to drive other places for gas only to run out and were stranded, but many were also bailing out to stay in hotels or with relatives in other states or untouched cities, plus determined hardheads out sightseeing. My father was among them. Each day he drove to Tennessee or south Alabama, over to Georgia, got gas and visited people he knew, as this event seemed to be a holiday for him.

The third day after the storm, he’d come in and without asking anyone, commenced to pour water on our fire and throw away both our wood and cook pot. All our hard work and time spent, ruined and brushed away. It had been a tense situation because of his audacity, even my son was vocally indignant as this time I confronted him outright with my mother’s support. There’s a long backstory to this I won’t bore you with it, but suffice it to say, because of my “lifestyle” my father considers me an “non-son” and normally doesn’t speak directly to or acknowledge me. In the end he’d put everything back like it was, surprised by our solidarity. By that time, we didn’t really have the energy for nonsense anyway.

My sister and son are disabled and had run out of food, so we’d shared with them. With lack of protein, my mother, son and I felt weak and light-headed. There were snack cakes left, but we didn’t need the sugar, and I was reluctant to get into the canned goods yet, unsure of the stores hopefully incoming wares. Besides that, we were very low of funds. Improbably the mail had run, bringing me my check but there was no bank to cash it. My mother can’t work due to severe arthritis, and though my father has, he certainly doesn’t give any to her. We were thankful he had somehow found gas and consented to fill up our vehicle before that disagreement. We shared pasta and tea, playing cards and listened to music, dreading the coming night but determined to remain cheerful.

All in all, life was beginning to remind me of scenes from “28 Days Later”, but my son didn’t think it was funny when at night, and he was standing near the window with a candle, I said, “Quiet! That’s an infected!” But during the daylight hours we laughed, trading quotes from the film, Serena: “Pepsi or Lilt?” Jim: “Do you have an Tango?” The peace was surreal at times, the calmness of the days though there was a shade of unease in the temporary brightness. You were very aware of the unknown, afraid of it in a way, but trying to be normal. Another aspect of that survivalist horror film also came into my mind, wrecked cars on the road. On the way to work one day, at the intersection seen in the intro photo I saw an accident in which the driver must have been killed. I saw it as it happened. A woman in a small sedan, talking on cellphone had forgotten about the 4-way stop rule and plowed full speed into the back of an F-150. I saw her shoulder length brown hair and pale skin, the western sky through her windows before her mouth opened in surprise. It takes less than second. Wrinkled metal folded up to the back seat. She was no longer visible.

Each day before, neighborhood children had happily played and parents watched. After that the fun was apparently over. It was just a “weekend camping” trip roughing it anymore. More people were leaving. Our next door neighbors to the right had returned. He’d been in the hospital and was also a disabled person. They got a generator for him, so now, instead of quiet there was the eternal motor sound cutting the blue, green, golden days and doggedly growled through the night.

* * * *

Work was work, and I actually welcomed the time to get away to be by myself for a couple of hours.It was now Saturday, and after four days, we weren’t battling each other as soon people get to in close quarters with limited resources, but we were restless, anxious. Although we knew we could get by through the weekend, thoughts of loss of pay, make up days at school, ramifications within the community of so many people displaced, higher prices stores would be charging to make up their losses were on our minds. I could already see it when I stopped into Publix and picked up a few items. I wasn’t surprised at the number of people streaming out with “suitcases” of beer. That seemed to be the most wanted item.

The coolers were on and the case was empty of all brands except Bud Light. Apparently the Budweiser truck was making its rounds. Too much so, in some cases. In the apartment complex where my sister lived, tenants had set up tables to play cards and dominoes outside. No few drunks got into a fight that escalated the complex wide and six cars of police arrived to break-up and make arrests. It seemed a number of people were binge drinking, but there are always those who try to take advantages of others after disasters. The first night, 30 people had been arrested for looting, the next was 8 I believe, as the dusk to dawn curfew took effect and opportunists quieted. Police had command posts set up at strategic locations.

Something else came up on Saturday night. Though we’d had no problem with looters, for our particular subdivision is small, backed by the river on one side and had only a few streets which are circles or dead-ends; along the river bank, at certain areas there were small banks were young people got together and drank, set fires and the like. Over the two years I’d lived at this location, at times it had been concerning, but this night, despite the curfew, from our backdoor we could see and hear a large group. They eventually got into noisy, curse laced arguments that resulted in a brawl. I had to call the police, though I was cognizant there might be retaliation, but they were too close for comfort. My son was afraid it would roll into our yard. He asked for the stuff animal, well Pokémon, Groudon to be specific, which he hadn’t slept with for a year.  The next day we learned one of our absent neighbor had had their home burglarized, even their dog was stolen.

By Sunday, cellphones were starting to get a least a bar or two, so regularly I tried to contact Lakota Rosebud Lady, her family lived directly in the path of the tornadoes. She’d tried to call me the “day after” but it dropped. If they’d made it, I thought they might have headed out of state to wait it out. Despite the possibility of getting through, one could only leave messages however, as no call would connect, but I felt them as being alright. I relied on that sense.

Though more stores and restaurants were generally open and gas trucks had gotten through, many “recreational” places like malls, theatres, etc. were still closed. I think too, this was a main reason so many people had left though most times were coming “online.” The Korean family next door, the one with the disabled patriarch, was making the best of the situation with a long table set up in their driveway where the adults were eating and doing crafts. Their babies were on blankets in the grass and the walkers hopped about playing games. Their chatter was welcome, and their peace eased the tension I didn’t realize was twisted around my heart. It was them and us alone on our street, besides neighbors on our direct left who were hospital workers. They were in town we knew, but working nearly around the clock.

Now we began with the hypothetical questions such as: “If you could have any meal whatsoever, what would it be?” “McDonald’s!” was my son’s immediate reply. My mother went searching for a “Happy Meal” and my son exuberantly joined her though he usually prefers not to go out in public. For half a second I considered going with them, but instead I found a new cassette I’d purchased, Blasmusik from Austria, and went back to reading “Betrayer.” They returned an hour later, his face fallen. By the time they got to the counter, from their place in line, the shop had sold out. Just like the devil, my father came in a few minutes later with an empty Micky D’s sack, but he said he’d seen an Arby’s open, so off my mother went again. Just as I was growing concerned that I wouldn’t have a vehicle to make to work on time I saw our van turn around the corner.  My son was in culinary heaven this time and ate two chicken sandwiches, fries and an order of chicken strips. It was a pleasure to see him so happy.

My employer’s wife was reading by the light of the window went I showed up. He had decided to turn the generator off after the nurse visited in the morning for her, only turning it back on when I arrived and then wait for the return visit of the nurse to get his wife ready for bed. In their garage, he had twenty-five filled gas cans lined up neatly. He informed me new estimates had set the return of power to Tuesday, 3 May, at the earliest. He had his meal enthusiastically complaining that he had no TiVo.

Online life could do without me for now. When I stopped to think about it, I spent way too much time online needlessly anyway. There’s no need to check email several times a day, or websites, or make updates as soon as I had new information. Making a set time a few days a week was enough. It had become a habit for me: getting up in the morning, turning the computer on, seeing what messages had come in over night then going through my websites.

I don’t have to be online to read books for my review site. Comments on my sites didn’t need to be replied to within minutes of reception. Even friends had no expectations that email replies had to come that very day. I had set a rule for myself some months ago which I had soon broken: no computer between 7pm-9pm, which is roughly the time I return from work and before my son goes to bed. Too many evenings, despite no pressing matters, I was mostly at the computer while my son played games or read.

We had used to watch DVDs with my mother during that time, but her chatter had driven me away. She’s a talker, especially so when she’s crocheting, and she crochets every evening. After the storms, we all spent the majority of the day all in one room, getting along just fine whether we were silent, or she and my son kept up their running spiel. When we ate, we ate together. No separateness while playing computer games or reading.

I’d written and mailed letters to two of my active publishers letting them know what happened just in case anything turned up which needed my consent, etc. I’d been able to utilize a computer connection at my employers long enough to contact the university and apply for an extension on my courses. I began the circular task of contacting doctors and insurance companies to get my son’s surgeries rescheduled, but everything else could wait. The only thing I wish was that I’d had boxes in which to packs our stuff for moving. All those hours at home could have been used towards that aim, but “it is as it is.”

So out of the difficulties, we personally reached, or perhaps returned to camaraderie we’d previously shared such as when we were in Germany. There we had bedrooms, but one common room in which we’d spend each evening if we were home. The situation with my father was finally settled as far as I was concerned. Though I’d come to the conclusion months ago, I’d finally told him that just like anyone else in the world who treated me disrespectfully or meanly again and again, I was saying good-bye permanently as I didn’t deserve the treatment and would not allow him to negatively affect my son’s or my life anymore.  All in all, even being without, though in no way as serious as the direct storm victims, it had been a good time for us. A time of realizations and declaration, of healing.

4 May 2011, around one a.m. my son awakens me with news the power had returned. The street lamp outside the window had awakened him. I looked out my window and found I missed seeing the clean edge of the mountain, the stars, the intimate moon which the city’s light caused to fade. When the sun came up, I found myself smiling like a child to be able to turn on the bathroom light and have a hot shower. Later that day we had an emergency meeting with the federal government representative regarding the Native American education grant which needed to be signed immediately. Washington didn’t care what wreckage the tornadoes had done, they had their schedule.

Today 13 May 2011 Slowly the region is being restored, and for those like myself, we were without electricity, hot water and suffered anxiety, but were not directly hit by the tornadoes. Those who lost their homes and goods, loved ones, and those who had less to begin with are having a harder path towards regaining their lives. On Wednesday, we had to travel south for the first of my son’s surgeries, along the highway that bisects the state I-65, through the affected counties. I counted no less than 5 avenues of total destruction and could see where the highway had been impassable earlier due to trees scattered across its surface. The devastation is horrendous and shocking. Do not forget those here.

2 thoughts on “Ring Side Seats: The Alabama April Tornadoes

  1. Reblogged this on Red Haircrow and commented:

    Perspectives on the American respond to the covid19 pandemic thus far.

    Living in disasters. My essay from April 2011, after we survived another round of deadly tornadoes where we lived in Alabama. Price gouging, rampant theft and violence, and the privileged mocking and scoffing at some POC and poor people who hadn’t money to “stock up & ride it out”. But special moments, too, as my mother, son and I grew closer and some neighbors came together to help each other.

    “Ration water, fuel especially as there was no ETA on when gas trucks could get through was broadcast repeatedly. Power was going to be out for at least a week because the nuclear power plant that supplied the valley, Browns Ferry, had been damaged. I awoke to the sounds of lawns being mowed and watered, however.”

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