I woke to the sound of wind and rain, grateful for a few more minutes in bed while the baby was still asleep, praying that the thunder wouldn’t wake him.
Bobby reminded me that he would be working later than normal to complete a photo shoot for his PR job. I had just the day before had a really promising interview for a public relations job myself, and the prospect took some of the edge off the dread of having to stay home alone all day with a three-week-old I had no idea how to get to stop crying.
Even though I was fairly consumed with trying to survive being a new mom (and, I would find out later, also surviving postpartum depression), I had caught a glimpse of some weather predictions the day before that were a little frightening, and it just added to the cloud of anxiety I was living in. I don’t remember what the scale was, but Tuscaloosa-area scored a 45 on the likelihood of having a tornado, whereas a normal score during a series of storms would be something like five or six.
The day was pretty much like any other day for the most part. Most of my time was spent trying to entertain a little bitty baby, feeding him, changing him, putting him down for naps and counting the minutes until Bobby would be home. I was relieved, on more than one level, when Bobby let me know that he’d managed to get his photo shoot done earlier in the day and would actually be home early.
After he got home, I think around 3:30, I actually managed to get the baby down for a nap, so Bobby and I decided to take advantage of that and the increasingly dreary weather to take a nap ourselves. It was rare for me to actually be able to fall asleep during the day at that point thanks to anxiety about Noah, but I did on April 27. I napped for maybe an hour before being awakened by sirens.
At that point, and I probably even said this to Bobby, I was anxious, but I wasn’t really concerned that we would be in the tornado’s path. Tornadoes always went either south or north of town. It was literally unheard of for a tornado to hit central Tuscaloosa, where we live.
We got up and turned on the television to find out what was up. This was a few minutes after 5 p.m. James Spann (my personal favorite of the local weathermen, who works for a station in Birmingham) was reporting that a large tornado was headed toward Tuscaloosa and that residents should take cover. The he said it was expected to hit downtown Tuscaloosa and possibly the University of Alabama campus — central Tuscaloosa.
At some point Bobby ran outside to get the dogs, and I quickly prepped a bottle for the baby and got him up. I was still watching the newscast when Spann said the tornado was approaching Greensboro Avenue, which runs a few hundred yards from our house … and the electricity went out.
Bobby told me we needed to get into the hallway NOW. I sat and fed the baby and successfully ignored the rest of the world that was apparently caving in around me. At some point my mom called and asked if we were OK because she was watching the Weather Channel, and they were saying a tornado was hitting downtown Tuscaloosa. We were cut off by what I could only assume was cell phone towers in the area being blown away.
I don’t know how long we sat in the hallway. I tried over and over to call my mom back and to get a text message to my sister to let them know we were OK. My dad had passed away nine days before. I finally got the message through and managed to post on Facebook and Twitter.
The following hours were a blurred mess of trying to figure out what to do. Our house was still standing with minimal damage (a large limb took out a power line in our front yard, but other than that, everything appeared fine). Our friend Chris came by to check on us and show us pictures he’d taken in a retail-heavy part of town. He told us the shopping center where Bobby’s office had been located was mostly no longer standing.
Once it started getting dark, we packed up in our car in search of somewhere with clean water and electricity, since not having access to those things wasn’t exactly conducive to taking care of a newborn. Everything was dark. It was eerie. The only lights were headlights and taillights — hundreds of taillights when we merged onto the local interstate connector near our house, and then the flashing lights of an ambulance trying to get through the traffic, headed to who-knows-where.
We could see tangled heaps of metal piled up in places where nothing had been standing on the right-of-way. We would find out later, when we passed the same area in daylight, that these were the overhead signs and posts from the interstate.
After a few stressful hours of trying to figure out a way to get to a safe place to stay, we managed to make it to our friends’ house in Northport, across the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa and an area largely unaffected by the storms. We sat for hours and looked at online images of the town where we lived, looking like a warzone, like dozens of bombs had gone off and destroyed almost everything we knew, that was familiar, that we took comfort in.
Sleep didn’t come easy that night or in the following nights. It has gotten easier in the weeks and months since. I can’t imagine what it’s like for those who were actually in the storm. It came within about a quarter mile of our house.
I drive past half-torn-down buildings every day, past fields that have long-since grown over with green grass and weeds but where people’s houses used to stand. Recovery is going to take a long time.
It’s depressing, but at the same time, it reminds me to be thankful. Bobby, Noah and I were so. freaking. lucky. If the tornado had gone just one or two degrees further south, made a turn to the right instead of to the left, then, at the very least, we would no longer have a home.
It’s been six months. Things are looking better than they were five, four, three, two months … even one month ago. It will keep getting better. And on days like today, when the memories get a little overwhelming, I will hug Bobby and Noah a little tighter, enjoy the warmth of the sun on my face and say a little prayer of thanks for life’s good things.