True Confession: We survived a tornado. Dramatic, right? Note of warning: This blog is rated, DSH–dramatic-sad but hopeful.
This week marks the 10th anniversary of my worst weekend.
Friday: Freak Atlanta Tornado rips through our backyard
Saturday: My dad falls off the roof and shatters his ankle, kick-starting months of medical issues
Sunday: Husband gets in minor car accident
Ten years ago we had one kid, an eighteen month old, so, at nearly 10 pm on a Friday night we were just hanging out at home. The wind and storms were rolling in. Like real grownups, we were watching the local news, but the local forecasters on the “classy” channels (2 and 11 for you non-cable-subscribers) were saying
it was heading south of the city. I felt pretty nervous. We flipped over to a lower budget channel (46), and Paul Ossman, an orange-skinned, male Barbie sort of a weatherman said, “If you are in the city, seek shelter immediately. I think this strong storm is headed right for you.” No one else was so direct; Thanks, Paul! We felt extra sad when you hit a career snag and left TV and started selling real estate. You even had a listing on our street. We hope things keep looking up for you.
Our little starter house had a basement…outside, down a long flight of stairs, and under the deck. Riley was standing in the laundry room (looking out of a glass door with two walls of windows next to and behind him) watching an evil looking mass of black clouds approach, “WHOA!” He said. “Get away from those windows!” I said. “Ok,” He said. The wind started to shift, and the air felt strange. I don’t remember who made the decision that we needed to grab Finn, but we hustled the short distance across our house and picked our sleeping boy up from his crib. We went to an interior hallway that led to our bedroom, pushed aside some piles of stuff, and huddled over our baby. I was holding Finn low to the ground with my body over his, and Riley wrapped himself around me. We were there for less than a minute before we heard a “BOOM” that I will never forget. The sound was loud, but more than loud, it was strong. I felt it in my organs, inside my bones. It is hard to explain, but it was like every molecule of air in our house let off a charge. It gives me goosebumps to remember. There was a split second delay before we heard the shattering glass and falling trees. And then it was silent. Eerily, uncomfortably silent. We knew our house was damaged, we knew it was going to be shocking, but the quiet seemed so out of place. We started asking each other if we had both FELT the boom. We cuddled Finn. Before I even knew the extent of the damage, I felt so grateful that we had gotten Finn out of his bed. I knew I would’ve always regretted not holding him during that storm. We walked tentatively towards our bedroom windows, and all we could see were downed trees. Everyone’s trees had just fallen into their neighbor’s yards taking with them anything that was in the way. We went to the front of the house and could see our sunporch windows were broken, that the front and rear corners of our house had been hit.
I felt so scared and unsure about leaving and looking around, not moving seemed like the only thing to do. I didn’t feel old enough to have a house or a baby or how to handle storm damage. I didn’t want Riley going outside. What if the storm wasn’t over or there were power lines down? He was certain it was okay, and he went. I waited, scared out of my mind. It felt like a long time, but he came back and told me that nearly every tree was down on our side of the street. He and our next door neighbor started walking down the street and yelling out to see if everyone was okay. Everyone was safe, but all of our houses were damaged.
We called our parents to tell them what had happened and that we were safe. They asked if they needed to come or bring anything. Riley’s parents came that night, I guess they just needed to SEE that we were okay. After a few hours the rain had stopped, and we tried to sleep. We had a rough night’s sleep, full of that disjointed and jerky stress-sleep, where you dream you’re stepping off of a sidewalk all night long. When the sun came up, we were able to really see how sad our house and street looked. All of the huge old oak trees that are the signature of Intown Atlanta neighborhoods were down, taking out decks and roofs and siding with them. It was clear that it was a tornado because you could just trace the path with your eyes. The tornado had traveled down our side of the street but not the next street over.
My parents arrived early Saturday morning with tarps and chainsaws to help cut trees off of our house. My brother and uncle came during the day, too. We didn’t have smartphones, and so while the entire city was seeing footage of the tornado, we didn’t see anything or really know anything. It was such an odd phenomenon to be in the center of the story but have no clue what was happening outside of our own yard. About mid-day cars started trying to drive slowly down our street. People in the driver and passenger seats would gape and comment on our damaged homes. It made me feel so angry that these cars were in the way of tree removal trucks and people trying to get work done. Our stress and sadness was their Saturday afternoon drive. Pre-Tornado, I wouldn’t have thought too much about driving to see the aftermath of some natural disaster in my neighborhood. But now, I wouldn’t dream of it. It makes you feel so 2-dimensional and so exposed; please don’t do that to people. Do NOT take pictures to post on your Facebook or Instagram. There might be an exhausted and overwhelmed person standing in the wreckage of that house that sees you pointing your phone up at them. And posting the picture and asking for prayers or good vibes or juju still doesn’t make that violation okay.
We spent nearly the entire day working and making phone calls, and then the sky started to darken again. We had pretty much done all we could do, and so my parents headed home. Not long after they left, my Uncle called to tell us strong storms were headed in again. We didn’t have a way to get updated weather reports unless we were sitting in the car listening to the radio. I couldn’t believe it. I was not ready to rally yet. I told Riley I wanted us all to go into the basement, and I was fine with staying there as long as the rain was still falling. We opened up lawn chairs and got ready to camp out. The rain didn’t last long, and we packed up to head to my in-laws’ house for the night.
I took a long shower. I was so tired. Heavy-hearted and weary, but also tired from a day of manual labor. I got out of the shower and just wanted to watch mindless tv or go to sleep. My father-in-law told me that they had gotten a call that my dad had fallen off the roof of his house and was going to the hospital. The storms that evening brought huge hail, so huge that the skylights at my parents’ house were shattered. My dad, who had been cutting and hauling trees all day at my house, went on the roof to cover his broken skylights, slipped, and fell to the ground. When I heard the news of his fall, I started laughing, stupidly joking that he was going to be in big trouble with my mom. I wish I hadn’t done that, and I doubt I will ever take a parental injury casually again. It was so immature. I actually was ill-equipped for all this real-life stuff. It took a long time to fully grasp how serious my dad’s fall was, and the more I understood, the worse I felt about my initial reaction. I felt so embarrassed that I had laughed, like I had really blown it with my in-laws, and disrespected my dad.
We were thankful to have a place to crash the day after the storm, but I we felt like we should get back to our house. We returned on Sunday ready to ride out the power outage and construction. Riley went to Lowe’s to get some supplies. We hadn’t slept well again, and so Riley was really tired. As he came down our street, the sun was so bright. All of the hundred year old trees that had created a shady canopy down our street were gone. As he crested the hill, he couldn’t see from the blinding sun and scraped into a car parked on the side. He was so defeated when he got home, so sorry to have added another headache to the mix. It was terrible, and I felt so sad for him, and again so tired.
At some point in the days following the storm, my sweet friend and the real estate agent who had helped us buy our house, stopped by. She had seen the damage from the interstate. You could see everything now that the trees were all gone, and she had stopped in to check on us. When she pulled into the driveway and saw me and our house, she burst into tears. Her tears remain one of my most vivid memories of the days right after the storm. Her reaction was raw and true. I felt so loved and cared for there in the driveway.
I love Mister Rogers and the sweet quote he stole from his mother. How during scary times, we should look for the helpers. Reflecting back on the Tornado Weekend helps me to know what helpers look like. They cover you. They show up with tarps and chainsaws, ready to do any job. They buy sandwiches for the people that are working and feel out whether they should stay and eat or just drop the food and go. They don’t show up just to look. They let people stay at their house when they need to, and they let them leave when they are ready. They call to give a head’s up when another storm is coming that you can’t see. And they cry, hard, when they see how banged up you are.