When you grow up in Alabama, tornados sirens are the background music to a normal spring, knowing what a “safe place,” funnel cloud, wall cloud, and “hook” is considered common knowledge. You learn young how to do tornado drills in school–how you should sit with your back against the wall, away from windows, and you should tuck your head between your knees and cover your head with a thick textbook. You will do this tornado drill at least two times a semester and will hear the tornado sirens being tested every first Wednesday of the month. You are guaranteed to see at least one local weather man, if not more, before you leave elementary school and if you don’t know who James Spann is, well you’re out of the loop. You get used to seeing a small replicate of your state (with all the counties outlined) appear at the bottom right corner of your screen should there be even the slightest threat of bad weather; you also get used to annoyingly missing your favorite TV shows due to “severe weather updates.”
I think I am right to say that tornadoes are a normal part of growing up in Alabama. Even so, I think many of us become so accustomed to hearing the sirens, listening to James Spann’s warnings, and practicing tornado drills in school that we don’t take seriously the very real threat of a tornado. More often than not it is more of a “threat” and tornadoes do little damage to human life and property. We get used to hearing the sirens, but not experiencing a tornado. It reminds me of the “boy who cried wolf”–the sirens sound so often and so rarely produce a real tornado that when a serious tornado comes, we aren’t prepared.
On Wednesday April 27th, I remember waking up and checking my Facebook (as is normal) and seeing Stephanie Pope Allums status “Not excited that i am about to wake up my baby to go to the basement. I hate this weather and this hour of the day!!!” Out of curiosity I looked at the weather forecast for the Birmingham metro area for the rest of the day–strong storms were expected with the threat of tornadoes. After a quick look at the news, I headed off to work the TESOL resource room for the School of Education. I went on about my day without thinking more about the weather in Alabama, or really Alabama in general. When I got home, I made my dinner, watched some TV and then out of pure curiosity decided to see what the weather had been like for the rest of the day in Alabama. Instead of doing what I would normally do–look on The Weather Channel’s website–I decided to find live streaming of a news channel back home (ABC 33/40). As soon as the channel began streaming, I saw a horrible image, an image that I will never forget. I saw an enormous tornado image, with James Spann’s voice saying the tornado was headed for downtown Tuscaloosa–the city that became my home for 4 years while I was at the University of Alabama. I was in shock.
I watched as the tornado passed through Tuscaloosa, constantly wondering if my friends were in their “safe places.” Few other thoughts entered my mind as I continued to watch the massive tornado continue to destroy everything in its path. James Spann was clearly at a loss for words several times, and I had never seen him so adamant in telling people to be in their safe places, suggesting they put on helmets to protect their heads, and practically cursing the few cars still visible on the interstates as the tornado continued to move northward. As Spann began saying the tornado was headed for the Bessemer/Hueytown area, I went into a panic. I phoned my mom, my dad, my brother, and my sister and no one answered. At last, I was able to communicate with my grandad on Facebook who said the storm was approaching and that he could hear debris falling outside of his gift shop, Hut Stuff. After a few minutes, though, I lost communication with him.
James Spann continuously said that this tornado had caused total devastation in Tuscaloosa, but that no images would be shown or damage discussed until the storm had passed through the rest of the “viewing area.” Thus, I watched for at least another 1.5hr as the storm continued to pass through Alabama. In the meantime, I was manically watching videos of the tornado in Tuscaloosa uploaded by UA students, Tuscaloosa citizens, and news casters following the storm as well as looking at the pictures being uploaded onto ABC 33/40’s Flickr page. It was unreal to see the horrifying videos and images. It was as if I were watching a movie…not watching a tornado destroy places close to my heart. I burst into hysterical tears as I realized the full gravity of the situation.
After the storm had cleared through the Hueytown/Concord/Pleasant Grove area, I continued to frantically call my family. Finally I got a text from my sister saying they were safe, in the basement (their “safe place”), and that there was no signal for them to call me/answer my calls. Cut off from news of the tornado, they were totally unaware of the massive tornado that had passed them by. Around the same time I got a text from my best friend at the University of Alabama saying she was ok and had waited out the storm in the basement of BB Comer (the language building at the University of Alabama). I felt better knowing my family and close friends were safe, but was still anxious to see the damage this massive tornado had caused.
James Spann finally said that they would be doing the 10 o’clock news and they would be showing some of the damage from the storm. I was too anxious, nervous, and worried to sleep anyway. By this time it was 4am (Leeds, England time). The 10 o’clock news was more like the 10:30pm news, as it took a while longer for the storm to pass. When they began showing the images of the damage and destruction left behind I was in shock. My body trembled and tears streamed down my face as I saw the images from Tuscaloosa–15th Street and McFarland Blvd, the images from Concord, where my cousin lost his house, and from Pleasant Grove where several friends lost their homes and loved ones.
As people began realizing, too, the extent of damage volunteers began emerging, collection points were set up, and before I knew it I was re-tweeting on Twitter and sharing on Facebook each and every detail of where people could volunteer, what areas needed what supplies, and who was coordinating rescue/clean-up efforts. I felt it was one way I could contribute to the rebuilding of these cities. Since Wednesday I have been glued to my computer screen constantly reading status updates, tweets, and emails from my friends and family members in the affected areas. I watched live as President Obama toured areas of Tuscaloosa and as actor Charlie Sheen brought attention back to Alabama on the day Osama Bin Laden was killed.
I can honestly say that in the almost 8 months I have been living in England, I have never once felt so far away from home and so helpless as I have in the past week. It was hard not to board the first plane home. I am a doer; I am a volunteer, and I am an Alabamian. I want, more than anything, to be home helping rebuild. Instead, I am across the pond trying against my will to finish up my end of the semester assignments. While I am physically in England my heart is in Dixie.
This is not going to be an easy or fast road to recovery and I hope Alabama is not forgotten about in the near future. I know I have mentioned Tuscaloosa and the Hueytown/Concord/Pleasant Grove areas (because those are the areas I am most connected to), but there are lots of other communities (too many to name) that have been just as devastated. I know many of you reading this are fellow Alabamians and will know all of what I have said, but for those of you who are from other states or other countries, please keep Alabama and her people in your thoughts and prayers, and if you would like to contribute to the rebuilding of these communities here are some options:
- American Red Cross: You can text “REDCROSS” to 90999 to make a $10 general donation. You can also contribute to the American Red Cross Relief Fund either by calling 1-800-HELPNOW, visiting their website, or by sending money to: American Red Cross of West Alabama, 1100 15th St. E., Tuscaloosa, AL 35404. Be sure to specify that you want your donation to go to the Tuscaloosa tornado victims.
- United Way of West Alabama: 100% of donations made between April 28, 2011 and August 31, 2011 will go directly to West Alabama’s Tornado Relief Fund! United Way of West Alabama: 2720 6th Street – Post Office Box 2291 – Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35403 (205) 345.6640.
- West Alabama Food Bank: Text “FOOD” to 27722 to donate $10 to West Alabama Food Bank.
Here is a website with an extensive list of ways you can donate: Click Here
If you’re in Tuscaloosa/Alabama, be sure to follow Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa (on Twitter and Facebook) as well as TuscaloosaCity and James Spann who are all doing a brilliant job of posting ways to help all over the states of Alabama.
I’ll leave you with this:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11
And, for those of you who are not familiar with what has happened…