April 30, 2011

A huge tornado tore through my town last Wednesday in “Dixie Alley”. We had days notice that a very strong front would be coming through and that the conditions would be right for a tornado outbreak. In my office, I was working on one screen with the weather channel on the other screen. About 3:00 pm, I noticed a particularly gnarly cell in Mississippi that looked like it would be heading our way. About 3:30, I called Coach to confer. The issue at hand is whether to load up the van and make the 7 mile trek to campus where we all could be safe together. We ended this conversation with “lets watch it”. About 3:45 pm I called back and asked him to load up the kids. I had been watching the cell and looked really significant. The person on the local weather channel talked about how all the conditions were right and I got a feeling. Coach packed up the van with kids and a firesafe box of important papers. He arrived about 4:15 pm. The two older kids each brought a bag filled with stuffed animals, their banks, and important trinkets. I brought them to my office and we watched the storm brew. About 4:30 pm, we called it. It was time to go down to the basement. The basement has no windows, is underground and is a designated storm shelter. It is the safest place in the whole city. I have lived here for 7 years and this is probably the 5th time that we decided to shelter in the “bunker”. We joined my colleagues and their family, our students and some of their families, and some attached people from the community who had learned this was a good place. There were probably 100 people in 2 rooms. The rooms are classrooms but we were packed in there. It was a party atmosphere. Most of us had been through this countless times before. Some brought beer, food, and games for entertainment. In the city center, a webcam was pointed southwest trained on the supercell and we streamed the video into the classroom on the wireless on personal computers. I wandered around with a baby or toddler on my hip chatting with colleagues and students. My kids were writing on the chalkboard and on the white board. About 4:50 pm, I was watching on a laptop and I saw a horrifying event. The wallcloud on the supercell dropped its funnel. The entire room gasped. A tornado was on the ground. We were in the direct projected path. I did not feel fear at that point. I knew that we would be safe. Even if the building blew down around us and they had to dig us out, we would be safe. We watched the tornado swirl debris and we saw explosions as transformers blew. Then, the webcam lost its picture. The tornado passed close enough to wipe out the camera. We were in the path. I told my husband that if we took a direct hit that he needs to get 2 kids and I would take 2 kids and we needed to duck under a table because the ceiling tiles were going to come down. Minutes passed. Two of my kids were playing the iPad. Jeff had Sunshine and I had Rainbow. She was watching a Cars video with another little boy. I told the two playing iPad that when the electricity went out that they did not need to be scared because the iPad sheds light. They answered “We know Mom”. Minutes passed. The electricity went out including the wireless-we were blind. How close was it? Did it pass? Did it hit the building? Is there another wave coming?

Students are sometimes not smart. Soon one came back with a cell phone image of the tornado as he looked out the back of our building. It was passed. We did not get hit directly. But many people did. We knew because we saw the wrath of the tornado that many lives would be lost. Rumors flew through the rooms, “It hit the hospital!” “the mall is obliterated!”. I assured my daughter that they were rumors and that we did not know where the tornado went. Those of us with families with us remained in the bunker for 45 more minutes. We finally were able to hook up a computer “old style” to the internet and saw that we were in the clear, no more storms. At 6:15 pm. My family walked out of the basement and drove home to a house that was still standing. Many were not so lucky.

In the bunker we were 3 blocks south of the tornado. My home is 7 miles north of the tornado path. But in the early hours, we were without cell phone service, without internet, and without television. Radio was our only source of communication. When we learned the path of the tornado, I was horrified. It hit many communities populated by students and by faculty. It also hit some very economically disadvantages areas. That night there was nothing for us to do but put the kids to bed and be thankful for being alive.

On Thursday, Coach went downtown to help people. He started with my colleagues with trees and debris on their houses. He continues to volunteer everyday to help move debris. Only on Saturday did the internet and cable return so that I could see the path of the tornado. The hospital was very close to the tornado but thankfully, only some windows were blown out. Most of the mall remains also.  For 3 days, I’ve been with the kids and I recognize how odd it is. My life continues while our neighbors lives are rocked or even worse, the person is dead. My kids have been running around outside and having a great time, and just miles away, there are those grieving for what they lost.

No one in our department died. Some have lost possessions but no one lost all of their house. I am grateful and thankful. Many were not so lucky.

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