> TEOTWAWKI Blog: Experiences and learnings from the Tuscaloosa tornado



Experiences and learnings from the Tuscaloosa tornado

Here are some questions and answers from our friends in Tuscaloosa. For background information, they are a wonderful, hardworking church-going family. He is an outdoorsman and PhD candidate at the University of Alabama, she is a stay at home mom. They have a three year old boy. This is account is written by the wife. They hope it is helpful to others preparing for disasters like this, and also to helpful to explain some of the emotional factors that people go through after a major, life-changing disaster.

If you would like to donate to the recovery effort and help people rebuild their lives, there are some links at the end of the post.

Did you know the tornado was coming? 
Yes and no. I'd heard severe weather was headed toward Alabama, but that happens relatively often. I did know enough to have the news on so I could watch the storm's progress, but I did not know until about an hour before the storm that it was headed straight for town. At that point, I got my son and a bag of snacks/toys and we headed to campus.

Where were you when it hit?
We met my husband at his building on campus and hung out in the basement for about two hours. We had done this once before when a storm was close enough for UA to cancel classes. We snacked, our son watched a movie, and we watched the weather updates until the university lost power. We stayed inside for another hour or so because there was a second tornado trailing the first, but once the sky cleared, we left. One of the things I am most grateful for at this point is that we were not at home. The places we were planning to bunker down were both intact, so we would have lived, but I can only imagine the horrible sounds, sights, and smells those who were stuck in the middle have to try to forget. I'm having a hard enough time sleeping as it is.

Did you know your house had been hit?
We had a pretty good idea. The news was reporting the twister was at the mall which is fairly close to our house, so we figured there'd be some damage. When we emerged from the basement, however, and each had many frantic messages from people who had heard Krispy Kreme's was demolished, we started to worry. Krispy Kreme's was just kitty corner from our house.

What happened next?  
We drove as close to home as we could through some insane traffic, but the roads were blocked off about 1/4 mile from home. We parked and walked in. While we drove and then while we walked, we tried to call someone from church/our parents to let them know we were okay (we'd had many calls) but there was virtually no reception. It was similar to 9/11 when the networks were all flooded. We eventually did get through to a friend and hoped she'd pass the word along that we were fine. Our son had fallen asleep at this point, so we carried him home.  We made it over a little hill north of our house and from there could see nothing but devastation. Before then, we'd not seen anything other than a few downed limbs and some broken glass. The hospital was spared, but everything south was not. The weirdest thing were the downed trees. The area had many very tall trees and we were not used to an unobstructed view. As we neared our house, we started to run. We just could not make ourselves walk.

Could you tell it was your house?
We turned the corner and it took a minute to figure out which house was ours for two reasons.  First, our neighbor's house had been pushed back off the foundation, so that marker was gone.  Second, our laundry room was ripped off the back so the dimensions were off.  I could see some of our things through what used to be a double window, though, which was strange. Right as we approached the house we looked up and saw some friends from church. There was nothing I could do at that point but cry: cry for my house, and cry because they'd come looking for us.  One of our friends held our son (who asked her, "what happened to my house? where is my window?") while we went inside to survey the damage.  We were barely inside before we smelled gas and a police officer came over and told us to leave. There was a gas leak in the neighborhood and they were clearing everyone out. We grabbed our 72-hour kit and our box of files and left. My son and I went to our friend's house while my husband stayed in town to help out.

And then what?
The first eight hours were the worst. We were in shock, there was no power so no news updates, we were still frantically trying to contact family and friends, our cell phones were dying, Jonah was upset, etc. etc. etc. My husband was out until after midnight, but around nine a man from our church showed up with a bag of diapers, clothes, and toys for our son. His phone also had better reception than ours and he had power at his house (therefore he could charge it when he got back) and so he let us call people for hours.  I imagine his wife and children missed him, especially on a night when everyone wanted to be with their families, but we really appreciated the chance to touch base with family. Up until then, only texts had been going through and even then only about half of them.

Where are you staying?
With our friends (the couple that met us at the house). They have been nothing but welcoming and there is no way for me to explain how great they've been in all this. They're letting us store our things in their dining room and garage, they've fed us, cared for our mental health, made us homemade ice cream, done our laundry and the husband even changed our fuel filter because he noticed the car coughing. I could do every nice thing I could think of for them for the rest of my life and never make up for them scooping us up off our front lawn and taking us in.

Did you have emergency supplies?
We did. I'm glad. The things I was most pleased to find inside: pudding (things were not so dire that I wanted to eat straight tuna fish yet, but it would have kept me alive), clean socks and underwear, chapstick, sunblock. The things that should have been there: toys for my son, a weather radio, a pair of tennis shoes (we were all wearing flip flops), pajamas (I'd originally thought I wouldn't need them in an emergency, but I wanted something clean to sleep in...luckily our friends lent me something), copies of our important documents, neosporin, a solar-powered cell phone charger. UPDATED: I woke up to pouring rain today. We should have had umbrellas or ponchos. I actually think there might be a poncho in there somewhere, but one would not be enough for all of us.  Also, from my perspective, 72 hours is plenty. After the first 48 hours, food and water were readily available at every major intersection. By Saturday or Sunday (3 and 4 days out), the same intersections also had clothes, diapers, flashlights, etc. There must be some wisdom in the 72-hour rule.

Were you able to get your things?
We've been to the house four times. Each time I hope it's the last. It is hard to see what I worked so hard to make home in pieces and my things and memories on the floor. The pictures are the worst.  Even though I have digital copies, I picked up all the pictures I could find because I just can't leave a picture of my baby boy in all that rubble.  The first, that night, we grabbed a bag with our emergency supplies and our files.  Later that night, after clearing roads for hours, my husband and some friends went back and grabbed whatever he thought we would need in case we never made it back.  They grabbed a handful of clothes for our son (literally. We had some socks without matches and lots of pajamas since it was the top drawer), my husband's guns (he did not want looters having access to firearms), our scriptures, our wedding pictures, our son's baby pictures, the spare computer (which has personal information, etc), our son's two favorite stuffed animals (filthy and embedded with debris, but intact), a few toy cars, my sewing machine (that was him being sweet....pieces of it are missing so I'm not sure if it works, but it was very kind of him to think of that), and my flute. At about 4:00 the next morning, when I couldn't sleep, I made a list of what I would grab if we were able to get back in.  That afternoon, when my father in law dad came to town, we took him to see the house and went in to salvage what we could. That walk through we noticed there was quite a few things that could be saved if we can ever get the mud and insulation off them. Finally, the next day, we went by with a crew from the church and took out everything else we could. I'm in the process of sorting through it now. Some things, like our son's bed, were intact but I'm nervous they might be embedded with glass or other debris. Still, we were much luckier than those who have nothing left but a foundation slab.

How is your son?
He is doing as well as could be expected.  He has seen the house and is obviously concerned about the house and our things.  Whenever anyone starts crying, he gets very still.  He wants to know what is wrong with his broken house.  He will tell anyone who listens, "my house is broken, but mommy is going to find me a new house", so I think he understands that we will not be going back.  The first few days he asked to go home to his broken house and if we could fix it.  He was not sleeping or eating well immediately after the storm, but he is currently with his grandparents, and they report he is doing well. The first night was definitely the worst. 

What next?
For us? We meet with the insurance representative on Wednesday and we're looking for a new place to live.  We fly out to see family and pick up our son on Friday.  For the town? Clean up, clean up, clean up.  There are still over 300 missing.  At this point, five days later, I don't know how many more survivors we can expect to find.  There is just so much destruction.  Half of town is still out of power, thousands of families have lost their homes, probably tens of thousands of trees will need to be chopped and moved (Alabama is a very green place...even typing that seems unreal, but there was one house we visited yesterday with over 30 trees on the property, so I believe that's an accurate guess).

What is being done in town?
Lots.  I know there is more to do and I hope people don't get tired of helping before it gets done (I'm predicting months at least), but there are people handing out food and water all over town,Tide's Loads of Hope is here, mobile claim RVs from most insurance companies are here, power companies from all over the region are here, the National Guard is here, our church is bringing in a crew and supplies (in addition to the crews of workers who just live here anyway), Home Depot is giving away boxes and plastic tubs, the grocery store is giving away tarps, and most neighborhoods seem to be banding together. There has been looting and I've heard reports of rape, but most everyone I've seen is looking out for someone else. It has been a life-changing experience. I hope to write down some of the relief efforts I've seen but my fingers are falling off already.

How can we help? 
The schools have posted a list of things they need here. A friend who lost more than we did can be found here. It's humbling to accept so much help, but we greatly appreciate everything which has been done for us. We would do the same for those we love. We are better off than many. Most of our furniture is fine if it can be cleaned. Our closets were all fine (there's a reason people hide in closets and bathtubs when storms come through!), so most of our clothes and some of our blankets and a lot of the kitchen cupboard contents were salvageable. I joke that next time we move I'm putting the stuff I use every day in the cupboard and the stuff we never use on the counter, that way if another tornado hits, the cherry pitter is ruined but my toaster will be fine.  I'd much rather have all the books that were on my nightstand, for example, than my box labeled "junk", but since the latter was in the closet, it survived.