Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Day Twenty-Eight: Blown Away

While sitting in the storm shelter recently, my mom asked me if I would be blogging about my fear of tornadoes. At the time, I didn’t know what my future “challenges” would be, so I told her I probably would at some point in the future. It turns out that Day Twenty-Eight’s assignment is to post a picture of something of which I’m afraid. Whaddya know?

Map from New York Times, March 22, 1952
 Before I talk about my own fear, perhaps I should provide a wee bit of back story. In the spring of 1952--twenty-seven years before I was born and five days after the NOAA issued their first tornado forecast--an outbreak of tornados ripped across Tennessee. Over a seven-hour period spanning two days, a total of sixty-seven Tennesseans perished, a majority of them in West Tennessee. The small town in which both my mother and I grew up was devastated when a Category 4 ripped across the county.One hundred twenty homes were destroyed; over 250 were damaged. Twenty-three perished..

My mother was five years old at the time, and the storm left its mark on her. I’ve decided to allow her to tell her memories of that night in her own words:

My mother, grandfather and uncle
I was not born afraid of storms but developed a real fear after March 22, 1952 when the horrible storm hit Henderson. I grew up in a community where my dad's 11 brothers and sisters also lived, all within three to four miles of each other with my grandparents sort of in the middle. As I remember, our family was always on the alert when stormy weather developed. During the first five years of my life, my parents, my brother and I sought shelter behind a large bank at the edge of our front yard whenever there was severe weather. This always seemed to be enough until that day in l952.
I remember the weather getting bad that night, but my parents did not realize how just bad it was. This was before weather satellites and tornado sirens. There was often very little warning. I remember how fearful things were that night once the storm got close. It was not raining at the beginning, only thundering. I remember the urgency of my parents. My mother took my eight-year-old brother, my dad took me, and we went to the bank outside. They threw quilts over each of us and we laid in the ditch behind the bank. As the storm passed over, I remember a roaring sound, but at my young age, I did not understand the significance. I remember my parents discussing the roar and how close it sounded.

After the storm appeared to be over, we went back into the house. I shall never forget how eerily quiet everything was. We could hear people in the distance, calling for each other. At that moment, we couldn’t imagine the pain and destruction that lay just across the wood from us, about a mile as the crow flies. Many of our neighbors had lost their homes. Even worse, several had lost their lives. My aunt’s brother, his wife and their child had all been killed as they slept. I can remember the adults talking about how the family never even knew what happened. This same little boy I had just recently played with at a party I attended with my mother. Other neighbors were injured and some had to be helped out of the rubble.

When daylight finally came, we drove to our neighbors’ homes; my parents wanted to help in any way they could. One might think my fear began the night before during the storm, but it was the following morning that my fear actually set in. I had never seen this type of destruction: houses torn down, cattle dead, trees scattered, belonging from houses hanging everywhere. In Chester County, 23 people were killed that night. As I listened to the adults talk about the death and destruction, I remember being very scared, not exactly understanding everything that had taken place.

That terrible night in March was the last time we sought refuge in the ditch. My dad, along with his brothers, built a storm house behind my grandparents’ home. This was a gathering place for all of us on stormy nights. After that night, I became very scared when stormy weather developed. I think I was the first in the family to hear the thunder. I would jump out of bed and begin dressing, shaking until we went to the shelter. My brother was not at afraid as I was. I think back and laugh when I remember how they would get him dressed, and as we would be ready to start out the door, they would find Roger crawled back into bed.

On stormy nights--even after 59 years –I am still carried back to the horrible sights and sounds that I experienced as a five-year-old. Once I had a family, I passed this on to my own two children. Even when they were young, they both would be out of the bed with me when the weather was stormy, keeping me company while their dad slept until we told him we had to take cover.
When I was a child, I thought my momma was pretty much invincible. If I thought I heard something in the house, I would always call for her. In my mind, she might as well have been some sort of super ninja. I was certain she would and could protect me from anything. It was because of this that I found myself very unsettled any time my mother was afraid. And if there was one thing she was afraid of, it was severe weather. When I say “severe,” I don’t just mean thunder and lightning. She does fine until someone mentions the “T-word.” When it would storm, my mother would stay up to watch the news until it had passed. When we were very small, my brother and I would often sleep in our clothes, our shoes nearby, ready to leave at a moment’s notice when she woke us up. As I got older, though, I joined her in the living room in front of the television.
When the storms would roll in, we would usually roll out toward my grandparents’ house in the country to spend the evening in their storm shelter [Note: They eventually built their own].  There were times we were actually driving to their house in the storm.  Not the greatest idea, but mom just seemed to feel better when we were out there.  This in turn made me feel better. 
Sometimes we just couldn’t get to my grandparents’ house in time, so we would go downtown to the public safety building’s basement.  I’ll never forget the time we parked at the post office where my dad worked and were walking across the street to seek shelter in the public safety building when all of a sudden the tornado alarms began wailing.  Suddenly, my mother lost all composure and turned into a manic cartoon character, spinning around with her arms out, gasping, “What do we do?  What do we do?”  I would have laughed if it hadn’t scared the Mountain Dew out of me.   It was the only time I remember my absolutely freaking out. 
I had my own “storm moment” that stuck with me, which only fueled my existing fears. In 1987, I went to West Memphis, Arkansas with my parents after a tornado hit the town right before Christmas. It was the first time I had seen firsthand the devastation from a twister. As my mother said of her experience, it was very scary (and I had not even been in this storm). I’ll never forget one house we saw. Half of it was standing, but the other half was completely gone. In one room that was left stood a china cabinet, unscathed. Even the china inside was intact. I was only eight, but something about the china made me uneasy, as if the tornado had been very deliberate. This experience just cemented my deep, almost irrational fear of tornados.

Damage from 1999 tornado

Though I don’t believe my mom’s intention was to instill a fear of severe weather in me, she inevitably did. While my brother is very cautious and keeps a close eye on the weather when it gets stormy, he keeps his wits about him. I get a bit more anxious. Since leaving home, I have earned a reputation as the “human tornado siren.” When it gets stormy, some people actually call me to see what’s going on in lieu of turning on the news. Everyone knows I’ll be keeping track of the storm. I’m the first to say that perhaps I’m a bit hyper vigilant, but the only way I can stay calm is to track the storm, sometimes hours before it arrives at my home. I attribute this to my Type-A, control freak tendencies. I have no power over the storm, so I have to settle for knowing everything about it. Basically, I turn into the overbearing, meddling mother of a rebellious, F-3 disaster.

Funeral home destroyed in 1999 storm
 I’ve spent entire nights parked in front of the television, awaiting a supercell that may or may not track over my home. When I lived in an apartment, I stocked the bathroom with pillows and supplies so that I could hide in the bathtub when the sirens started. When I moved to an upstairs apartment, I made it a point to find a downstairs neighbor who was as scared of the threat of tornados as I was so that I could run to her apartment. My philosophy toward tornado-producing weather can be summed up by the old idiom “better safe than sorry.” I’d rather lose some sleep and take every precaution than to ignore the weather map and be sucked out of my bed. People always try to tell me I overreact or even that I need to have “more faith that God will protect me.” I say that God even gave a dog the sense to get in out of the rain.

Mother Liberty CME after the 2003 storm
My fear probably hit its absolute high—or maybe low, depending on how you look at it—on February 5, 2008. It was Super Tuesday and the Storm Prediction Center had placed our area at high risk for severe storms. Since our city and county had already suffered destruction and 11 deaths from tornadoes in 1999 and 2003, many people were feeling pretty edgy. School was dismissed early that day due to the possibility that the severe weather could arrive while students were still on the buses riding home. I left school, went to vote in the primaries, and headed home to get ready for the storm.

Aerial view following 2003 storm

As I was watching the Memphis news around 5:30, they went live to one of their cameras that showed a tornado touching down along the state line. Even though it was 100 miles away, I freaked out because I was watching a live tornado. I called John and told him he had to leave work and come home immediately. He wasn’t overly concerned but told me he’d come home soon. Over the next hour, my nerves became more and more frayed as reports came in about the damage in Memphis, my former home where many friends still live. John finally arrived home, completely unphased by the approaching storm. A little before 7:00, I finally convinced him to get his shoes on and go to the hallway with me. I use the term “hallway” loosely. Since our house has no inner rooms, we were forced to hide in the in the tiny area outside of the guest bedrooms and bathroom.

At this point, I was in full-alert mode, just a notch below “spinning in the street, panicking” mode. With my cell phone, flashlights, purse and pillows, John and I sat with our dogs and listened to the weathermen on TV in the next room report that there was a tornado on the ground inside the county. My mother was on the phone with me, attempting to keep me calm. (Ironic, no?) Within minutes, the cell had reached us. The wind and rain picked up, and suddenly we heard a sickening sound. It wasn’t the “freight train” sound everyone describes, but an almost deafening thudding sound. I was convinced the storm was pulling the top of our house off and looked up expecting to see sky. But nothing happened. John peeked around the corner and out the window saw hail falling into our yard and blowing against the windows. I didn’t know whether I should be relieved or scared of what was coming after the hail. Actually, I didn’t know anything except absolute terror. Eventually, it got quiet. The storm had passed over our home. We came out of hiding to find our yard covered in hail the size of tennis balls. I’m not sure how we managed to come through with our windows intact.

Hurt Dorms at Union University
While we were getting pummeled, just 1 ½ miles across the woods (as the crow flies, like my mother says), a tornado touched down, twisting and tossing everything in its path. It skipped up the highway toward Union University where it damaged or destroyed 31 buildings on campus, including most of the dorms. It is the fact that not a single life was lost that provided concrete proof to me that God does indeed exist. The storm continued, as the tornado destroyed homes and businesses across the city and county.

Huntersville, where we assisted in cleanup
The destruction left in the wake of that storm was heartbreaking. Two more lives were lost. I went with a group to the small community where one death occurred, and we helped the family clean up and search for their possessions. The gentleman at the site had lost his father in the storm and his mother was seriously injured. Everything they owned was either buried under the walls of the house or strewn across the countryside. It looked like a bomb had exploded inside of their home. As we surveyed the damage throughout the county, even my husband--who had never shown even an ounce of real concern during stormy weather--declared that we would get a shelter installed.  

Watters Dorms at Union University
My fear of tornadoes has only grown since I gave birth last summer. I prepare twice as much for an impending storm and am 200% more diligent in watching the news and weather. Our shelter has done wonders for me, though. I am actually able to relax a little when I’m down in “my hidey hole.” I also try to stay calm so as not to upset my daughter. My goal is to make her mindful of storms but to not instill in her the fear that I have always had. I want her to always be safe, but without being scared.

I know there are people who think I’m absolutely nuts, but there is really nothing I can do about my fear of tornadoes. Some people are afraid to fly or of small spaces. I’m afraid of giant rotating funnels that can destroy my home and my family. Just seeing pictures or footage of a tornado is enough to make me jittery. At least over the years I’ve been able to exert some control over my fear so that I’m not reduced to a shivering, babbling pile of nerves every time I hear a siren. Though I am still very much frightened, I know I must stay as calm and rational as possible to best protect both me and my loved ones.

When I was a little girl, a friend of mine didn’t want to watch Wizard of Oz because she was scared of the flying monkeys. I loved Oz, though I do admit I closed my eyes on one part every time. Bet you can guess the scene.

1 comment:

momer said...

I could not help but giggle through parts of this.