Saturday, April 28, 2012

This time last spring

I'm writing this at about 6 o'clock p.m. Friday. One year ago today, just about to the minute, friends were phoning me from across town, and my husband was phoning me from a business trip in Texas, to tell me that I was about to get hit by a tornado. I had asked them to phone me because my power had been out for 12 hours and I couldn't watch the weather on TV. I had already secured my 9-year-old child in a small, windowless room in the basement. We had a flashlight. We had shoes. We had a radio. I just didn't have the cat. The cat does not come when we call him. This is pretty annoying during tornadoes. What I learned from this experience was that when you know for 12 hours that you're probably going to get hit by a tornado but you're just not sure exactly when, no matter how prepared you think you are, it will always come sooner and travel much faster than you thought, and you will not have time then to save both yourself and the cat.

Flash back to 2007. Enterprise High School in south Alabama was destroyed by a tornado right when school was about to let out, killing nine people, eight of them students. Apparently there was some question about whether it was better to let the students out, so they would be driving around town when the storm hit, or keep them in the school until the storm blew over. There was not a good answer to this question.

As a result, all the schools around Birmingham became, quite naturally, completely freaked out. In the following school year, my son's school started late, let out early, held students over, or canceled the day entirely five times because of tornadoes. We have terrific meteorologists and weather warning systems around here, so we knew three days ahead of time that April 27, 2011, was going to be a problem. They told us the first wave of weather would hit Birmingham before dawn.

Like clockwork, at 5 a.m. the tornado sirens woke me and the power went out. My son and the cat and I huddled in the basement. But soon the clouds parted, and the morning as cool and beautiful. The radio was saying that several places around the state had sustained heavy damage, but they weren't saying much about my own area. I didn't quite understand why the power was out. So, grumbly, I took my son to school. The school was closed because it didn't have power either. Son in tow, I went in search of coffee. There was no coffee. Starbucks did not have power. Chick-fil-A was packed with people wanting coffee. They ran out of coffee. I realized then that the power outage was widespread. Yes, there was an eighteen-wheeler blown off the interstate and onto its side, but I thought that was an isolated incident. It would be a few more days before I traveled to the other side of my suburb and saw all the homes and businesses destroyed.

As the day wore on, my son and I went to the grocery store to stock up on food that didn't have to be refrigerated or cooked. The folks on that side of the mountain all had power and kept telling me another wave of weather was coming at 3-ish and another at 6-ish. We went home and waited throughout this gorgeous sunny day. The 3 p.m. storm veered north of us and destroyed Hackleburg. Around 5 the radio said a tornado had destroyed a big part of Tuscaloosa and was headed straight for me--as verified by the folks calling me. 6 p.m. found me grabbing up a damn cat and scampering for the basement.

If that tornado really was going to hit me, it would have killed me, because it was already past us when I made it to the basement. It had veered north of us too, by about 10 miles. Here it is, viewed from the mountain just south of downtown Birmingham, looking north.



The weather wasn't over, either. We didn't get another big storm in Birmingham, but later that night, one hit the lake where I grew up. Two of my distant relatives were killed, but my lovely cousin Edie survived. Apparently she had cat problems also. This is her story:


A few days later, I went up with my dad in his airplane and took these pictures of the lake. When I was writing The Boys Next Door in 2006 and Endless Summer in 2009, I had a couple of bridges and marinas in mind, but part of my model for the setting was the Kowaliga bridge and marina in the center of this photo. The path of the tornado is on the left.


Here's a slightly different angle. You can see the path of the tornado coming toward you.



Now I've shifted to the opposite side of the plane to take a photo out the other window, with the path of the tornado moving away.


This is where it killed my relatives, brushed against the gazebo at the edge of my dad's business partner's yard, and headed off to destroy Edie's house on another part of the lake.

All told, there were 62 tornados in Alabama that day, and they killed 255 people. Here are some of them:


The red one that came closest to me is pointed out for you. A little green one under that is the one that knocked out my power and destroyed buildings in my suburb, and the red one at the bottom right is the one that crossed the lake.

Maybe you are sick of seeing pictures and videos like this. They make my heart race even today, but I never get tired of them. I didn't get my power back for another four days, and my phone wasn't much help for surfing the internet because so many cell towers were down. All that time I couldn't see the storms or the damage, only hear about them on the radio. When the power finally came back, I stayed online looking at this stuff for probably six hours. There is definitely a tornado-chasing book in me.

In fact, Such a Rush, which is coming out on July 10, has a tornado in it. I was writing it while this was going on, and you might think the tornado is a result of my experience. It isn't. I'd already planned on that tornado when this happened. It had been a very active spring and we'd had maybe five tornado warnings already, so I had tornadoes on the brain.

But the tornado in the book did change character because of this experience. A lot of people from elsewhere in the country tell me they would be terrified of living here because of the tornadoes. To me, they're a lot less scary than earthquakes or hurricanes or avalanches or volcanoes, because they are my natural distaster. As you can see from the map, they are only going in one direction. If the warning siren goes off, that means a tornado has crossed the county line. You just turn on the TV and see where it is. If it is going to hit you, you will know. If it's way north or south of you in the county, you keep the TV on in case something else pops up, but for now you know you're safe.

This only works when you have a TV. Being without power, and therefore without the knowledge I'd always counted on to feel safe, was a terrible feeling. Sometimes as authors we can't directly experience what our characters are going through, so we transfer our feelings from one event onto another. In the book, my heroine has grown up in devastating poverty and has been all but abandoned by her mother. When the tornado sirens go off, she doesn't have a TV to show her she's safe. She doesn't have a car to drive to a shelter. If a tornado hits her mobile home, she is going to die. The helplessness and utter hopelessness she feels in the moment of that realization become a reflection of her whole life, with so little power and so few choices. I've never experienced that exactly, but I know how she feels.

4 comments:

  1. Oddly, my April 2011 Intrigue, HITCHED AND HUNTED, opened with the hero and heroine in a motel bathtub, riding out a tornado in southern Mississippi. Kinda creepy timing, really.

    Our power didn't go out that day until after I'd gotten home from work (early, because we closed the office a couple of hours early so people didn't have to drive through the bad weather). I'd have been safer at work, as it turned out, although I would have been unable to get home because the tornado ripped through both of my best routes home, Highway 31 and I-65 in Fultondale.

    It was a scary time, even though Gardendale was spared most of the bad stuff. We had kept power long enough to see the tornadoes hit Cullman and Tuscaloosa on ABC 33/40. We saw just how destructive they were.

    I have to give huge kudos to the Birmingham weathermen, especially James Spann, who warned people for days to be prepared and even told them how. Sometimes, there's no way to prepare for a bad tornado, but I believe Spann probably saved a lot of lives with his warnings.

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  2. That IS creepy timing...though completely logical around here!

    We truly do have terrific meteorologists and I think it's great that they get so much well deserved love around the city.

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  3. Thanks for sharing and explaining your experiences. I've only lived through this once while visiting friends in Florida last year. I live near a volcano and in a major earthquake zone, but other than having a disaster preparedness kit at the ready, I don't think about them much.

    As a big fan of your novels, I look forward to reading SUCH A RUSH. ^_^

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  4. I'm really close to Joplin, MO, and we were sure all day long that last year's massive tornado would hit us...We ate dinner early, and had all our supplies in the center room of the house, ready for disaster.

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