Alabama Living

April’s Epic Tornado Outbreak

Posted in Alabama Living on April 27th, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

Today, one year ago, my family huddled and prayed in the basement as tornadoes ripped across our state and many others throughout the Southeast. We were lucky. Since then, when I walk out the door in the morning, I acknowledge the piece of gray roofing still stuck at the top of our cherry tree, blown by the brutal winds off someone’s house. Below is my journal entry a few days following this epic outbreak last year.

Hundreds of lives have been lost, people are missing, homes destroyed and entire communities gone. Not because we weren’t warned or didn’t heed the sirens. We were helpless in the face of EF5 tornadoes with 166-200 mile per hour winds. The satellite image from space shows the path of an almost two-mile wide twister stretching from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham, AL, a distance of sixty miles, a whisper of a white chalk line from a bird’s eye view. From the ground, utter devastation.

This monster  storm ultimately stretched across Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina. This is our Katrina, and the loss and sadness are overwhelming. Parts of Alabama are now Ground Zero, miles and miles of towns splintered into a million pieces. Reporters weep on TV, surveying  the damage, traumatized as if they are covering a war.

Growing up in tornado alley, I was riveted by The Wizard of Oz, and every time it came on TV, I watched, horrified, as Dorothy and Toto swirled past Aunt M in black and white. As a child, in the middle of a storm we’d measure the wind speed with a funny little instrument hanging on the sunporch wall. The prospect of a real tornado always terrified me and, a naturally anxious child, I often had nightmares about it. (Honestly, I still do.)

Then years later came meteorologist James Spann and the advent of Doppler radar, and I could track and agonize over every possible scenario. I need and want to control this situation or at least be prepared, but as many times as I’ve stared at the map of storms in red moving across the screen each time a warning is issued, I’ve never mastered the art of seeing the strange hooks and bow echoes James targets when he’s on the air during a tornado warning. But that’s the thing. A hurricane gives you enough warning to leave. A tornado warning just means the conditions are ripe for one to form. And even with all of the unbelievable technology, the science still boils down to something as mysterious as reading tea leaves.

As I was reading the weather blog the first time before this historic outbreak, I became alarmed as James pointed out the helicity index (had to look it up) was a ten, a “rare” occurrence. The warm moist jet stream from the Gulf Coast was “shooting like a firehose” above the state as the cold front moved our way. James wrote he’d never heard the forecasters say the things they were predicting in reference to the potential for theses long track tornadoes.

The kids came home early from school, we got our flashlights, took some blankets and camp chairs to the basement, and waited. Then came the sirens again along with the dark clouds streaming across the sky and the trees s bending like rubber limbs on a doll. As we headed to the basement  my son said, “The birds have stopped singing.”

We were more than lucky and escaped any damage as a supercell outbreak  decimated parts of north Birmingham. Now we must help rebuild, but where to start in a process that will take months and even years? Why is it that often the most vulnerable are the storm victims? Some of the places hit hardest in north Birmingham are equivalent to the lower ninth ward in New Orleans. It’s not fair.

I can not imagine my house and life completely being blown away. I can’t fathom holding my child and having her ripped from my arms by 200 mph winds. I cannot imagine finding a rabbit in my yard who has been skinned by the winds. I can’t comprehend a body being blown over 100 miles away form his home. I see the images of destruction as a viewer from the outside looking at the TV, but this scene is another matter altogether for someone standing among the rubble, having crawled out from what was once his or her house. The difference in experience is the difference between reading about childbirth and birthing a child. One is glazed over by distance; the other is the visceral understanding. I am grateful we were lucky this time, saddened by so much loss, and hopeful communities and families can rebuild.

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