Sunday, May 22, 2011

Last Tornado Post

Things are getting back to normal for most people. The power has been spotty, but it's holding right now. I had stopped jumping at noises finally, and then the tornado sirens went off today. It was the first time they had sounded since the April 27th outbreak. I had been sure that I'd vomit or panic the next time I heard them, but I did neither. I did those stupid childbirth breathing exercises that they always think will help but don't. I kept it together and all was fine. I know that I can handle things now. I won't freak every time they sound. There will likely never be a day like that again in my lifetime, and that fact now seems real.

The emergency responses have been better than I thought they'd be. FEMA is everywhere. I don't know if they learned a lot from Katrina or whether they were unfairly maligned in the press, but I suspect the former. They've offered far more benefits to people than I thought anyone would. They've done everything from hand out food vouchers to pony up money for home repairs. They've put up electronic signs all over town with their phone number and email address to help people get whatever they need from them. I'm truly impressed by them. Local churches have also really stepped up, offering anyone who needs it everything from bottled water to pet food. Several are offering free cleanup of your yard and even free home repairs.

As for the Red Cross, the only thing, and I do mean the only thing that I've heard of them doing for any man, woman or child around here is to hand out a banana to someone I know who lost his home. That's it. Here's a banana- goodbye. They didn't even put together shelters here. Meanwhile, they're all over the place soliciting money. They are even selling stuff outside of stores. They are no better than looters. I won't even qualify that. If the Red Cross wants to sue me, please leave a message in the comments section and I will provide you with my name and address that you can forward to your team of high-priced lawyers. Bring it. I'll bet there are a lot of ugly little truths that they wouldn't like to be heard in a venue as public as a courtroom.

Meanwhile, I've come to understand that Maine isn't just cold- it is bizarrely, unnaturally cold and they have some kind of giant storms there that would be almost as scary as the stuff here. So, Maine's out. I'm looking at Oregon right now. They get some volcano fallout, but that's actually kind of cool. The other choice is Vermont. It seems OK in Vermont. I could get a bunch of tattoos and dye my hair awesome colors and be an Oregonian or get a bunch of cows and make ice cream in Vermont. Either one is fine by me..

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Warning: this is going to be very long, and it's not necessarily about writing. But then again, virtually everything is about writing. I always see things in terms of what I'd say about them, how I'd crop the tale to the right details, etc. But again, most of it is not about freelance writing and there is very little Star Trek:

6 a.m.

The day began a little before 6 a.m. when the weather radio alert sounded. I sleep quite lightly anyway, and I knew there was a chance of tornadoes in the morning, so I was barely sleeping and got to the alarm a minute before the tornado siren went off. If you've never heard a tornado siren, they're high-pitched, wailing monstrosities that have an otherworldly sound that sincerely sounds like it's being broadcast over the entire planet. I checked to see where the tornado was, and it was nearby, so I told everyone else in the household and got them into the designated tornado area.

People in this part of the country don't have basements- and it isn't because we don't want them. They simply don't offer them. I don't know why. Everyone has a sturdy area, usually a closet or bathroom, where they go to escape during close tornadoes. After awhile, it had moved on and we came out. School was delayed for a few hours, so everyone got a little sleep, thinking it was more or less over. For the first time that day, I couldn't have been more wrong.

I can hear it

A few hours later, with the offspring safely at school, the radio alert and the sirens went off again. This time the tornado was much, much closer. I was in the shelter closet trying not to lose it completely, asking spouse over and over where it was. Trying to keep me calm, I was told that it was "south of here" or "not very close." I tried to believe it, but eventually I could hear the tornado quite clearly outside, and loud bangs were telling me that it wasn't much farther than my back yard. "Stop telling me that it isn't close- I can hear it!"

When it had passed, we found out that the bangs were trees being ripped out of the ground and crashing. Some crashed into fences, some into other trees, etc. We had some fence damage, as did everyone else around us. A neighbor's mailbox had been smashed flat. The power was out, but we had minimal damage and it was over for the most part, right? So, so wrong.

We got the call that school was letting out in the midst of all of this. I didn't want to have any of us on the road, but I got another call telling me that the worst wasn't even here yet. That was pretty hard to believe, but we set out to go and fetch the offspring. The trip was eye-opening. The last tornado had struck less than a mile from us, and it had caused more damage than I've ever seen before. It had sucked air conditioners right off homes, torn roofs to shreds and twisted trampolines into modern art. Roads were blocked with huge downed trees and we had to drive over power lines. The roads were starting to flood and the rain was blinding. Every block of the trip was shocking and frightening, and I wondered whether everyone in the area had made it through alive. I don't know that everyone did.

They're all around you.

Once we got home safely, I really thought that there couldn't be much worse coming than what we'd seen and heard. I couldn't possibly have been more wrong. Within an hour there were tornadoes lined up for hours to the west of us, with new ones hitting constantly. Each new one seemed to have an insanely long track, and they weren't the run-of-the-mill F-0s and F-1s. An F-1 isn't a huge deal if you're inside, but these sounded more like 2s, 3s and maybe even 4s. Since then I've found out that most were 3s and 4s, and there's not a thing you can do about a tornado that powerful. Some were even long-track tornadoes. There was an enormous long-track wedge tornado less than an hour south of us and one two hours west. With a long-track, it can stay on the ground for two or three hours, so being so far away meant nothing. It just gives you more time to be afraid.

With no power we were relying on a tiny battery-powered radio that I keep in the tornado closet, and every hour brought grimmer and grimmer news. They'd never seen that many tornadoes at once, and the weather guy couldn't keep up with everything that was happening. At one point, my father called and said to "hunker down," however you do that. "Why?"

"They're all around you."
"How many right now?"
He paused for what seemed like forever, probably trying to count all of the tornado tracks on his smartphone.

Five tornadoes were all around us, forming a circle that was causing unimaginable destruction. Then, a tornado hit the weather alert tower and took out the NOAA weather radio information. Then one hit a local radio station and another a TV station. Then all radar was compeltely knocked out. The weather guys were scrambling, trying to get information, but with no radar they had to rely on people calling in and telling them where they could see or hear tornadoes. Then the phone lines went down, and that was gone too. I'd have given anything an hour earlier for the tornado sirens to stop, but then the power went off on the sirens as well. We would no longer get warnings of any kind, even the dreaded sirens. We were all on our own, in the dark, with the wind howling outside and loud thumps penetrating the darkness. I think that's when I started to come unhinged.

200 Dead

Tornadoes were coming and passing over, and trees were crashing into houses all over the area. With land lines out, cell phone service eventually came back here and there but with no reliability. Every call I managed to get was worse than the last. Neighborhoods were being flattened all around us. I could only guess that there were dead and injured all over the place, and still the tornadoes came. All we could do was listen and try to get through on cell phones. Late in the evening some cell towers were finally working steadily, and I found out from my brother that all roads had been closed because of downed power lines and trees. He only found out by reading the weather man's Facebook updates- every other means of communication was down. Can they even close every single road? I wasn't sure, but it reminded me of 9/11 when the Powers That Be said, you know what? No more planes.

Finally, late in the evening, I got a call telling me that it was over for us. Some parts of the state were still getting hit, but for us it was over. We had been waiting for the power to come back on, but it didn't. All the downed power lines weren't the main problem- a tornado had hit the nuclear power plant and a million people in our state were without power. I didn't find out until a few days later that more than 200 people in my state alone had died, some of them on a small and picturesque road that I regularly travel. For more than 12 hours we had been hit by an unrelenting onslaught of tornadoes and for more than 12 hours I had been pacing and crying and hiding and at some points trying not to throw up.

Hell No

In the morning, all cell service was gone and land lines were still down. There were emergency vehicle sirens all over the place and there was little information about what was happening. I did find out that there was a dusk-to-dawn curfew in effect for the entire county, and that the water was expected to be undrinkable soon. I remember the radio guy saying, "We'll let you know just when you need to start boiling your water." Boiling it with what? We were advised to start stockpiling our water. It was fine. It kept me busy. The governor announced that they'd need federal help dealing with all of the bodies. I went outside to stop hearing the radio.

Later, it was announced that it would be three to five days before power was restored- maybe longer. So, no phones, no power, soon no water and no end to this in sight. With no power, the few stores that had generators were being swamped with people looking for supplies. One of them was letting people in one at a time with an armed escort to prevent theft and/or violence. By the time they announced that a store was open it was too late to go there. With young offspring, no milk, our food spoiling, no way to contact anyone in an emergency and a curfew in effect, possibly signifying looters, I'd had it. We were leaving. I informed spouse that we were leaving town.

Aaaaand the Mad Max Lingo Enters the Lexicon

There was no gas available and the radio was reporting increasingly long lines of people trying to get out of town. Going straight north there was a 25-mile backup of cars trying to get gas and/or get out of town. Everyone was desperate to get gas. The working radio station reported a few gas stations that were temporarily open, but they were running out of gas as they were reported and then mobbed. So, due north wasn't an option- we didn't have enough gas to sit through the traffic that long. Northwest of town was also getting swamped by gas seekers. I didn't hear anything about northeast, though. There wasn't a word about long lines, miles of cars, etc. So, we'd go that way.

It would be expensive to stay out of town, spouse reasoned. It would be hard to get out of town. We didn't have enough gas to make it to an area with power if there were the same kind of traffic tie-ups in that direction. All solid arguments. But, I countered, Captain Kirk would never take "low on gas" as a reason for not trying. There is no way he'd sit back and deal with this when there was a hope for escape. Spouse said that Picard would stop and consider things. The curfew was hanging over us and if we didn't get gas in time we'd have to turn back. I.Don't.Care.What.Picard.Would.Say. And neither would Kirk.

The trip out of town was horrible to witness. Trees had crashed into houses, across roads, into cars, etc. Chunks of houses were everywhere, and some of the roads were flooded. You know that part of a zombie movie when the group of tattered survivors grabs whatever makeshift weapons they can and piles into the car and tries to get out of town, dodging abandoned cars and debris? Ok, maybe you're not into zombie movies, but trust me, every single zombie movie has that scene. I couldn't get that image out of my mind as we drove with our hastily-packed bags and dodged debris, with abandoned cars along the roadsides.

Getting gas soon was no joke. There were reports on the radio of people sleeping in their cars or abandoning them and walking because of a lack of gas, and we had offspring in the car. The phones were still out and there was no way to contact anyone if we ran out of gas. Eventually, spouse announced that we had come to the point of no return. If we turned back, we had enough gas to get home. If we kept going, we had no choice but to get gas within an hour. There is no way that Kirk would have turned back. Absolutely zero chance. He'd find a way. We'd keep going. The traffic had been light, but there was a chance that it would be backed up around the Tennessee border. And as it happens, that's exactly the way it was.

A little town right across the state line was mobbed by gas seekers, with gridlock clogging the streets and making it impossible to get to one of the few gas stations there. At least they had power. And there were gas trucks- they had gas. It took us over an hour, but we were able to get to one of the overworked gas pumps. It was slow and it kept shutting off over and over again, but eventually we had gas and I started to breathe again.

The towns right over the line that weren't destroyed were getting packed quickly, so we decided to go far enough away that there would be vacancies and no hour-long lines for gas. If we kept going another two hours, we'd reach Gatlinburg, a town with plenty to do and lots of inexpensive hotels. And so, our redneck travel adventure began.

My Redneck Travel Adventure

Without Internet, I was worried about work that I had taken on. We'd left so quickly that we'd left behind much of what we needed, and we didn't have smartphones. There was one content-site owner that I particularly wanted to contact, thinking that once the cell lines were more stable I could call my brother and ask him to email her. But, I couldn't remember her email address. I could barely remember my own name. Literally. The hotel clerk asked me my first name and it took me a few seconds to remember it.

With actual electricity, we finally got to see footage of the major tornadoes and some of the minor ones. They are now reporting that there were 24 tornadoes in the state that day, but that number is being added to regularly as more are confirmed. The death toll is also climbing steadily. Even hours from home it was two days before I stopped jumping every time I heard a high-pitched sound. We had to do something to get our minds off things.

Luckily, Dollywood, Dolly Parton's theme park, was very close by. Like DisneyWorld, it has a theme and extremely pricey sodas. But unlike Disney's themes of frontier and colonial life, the themes of Dollywood are logging and mining. Instead of a mouse they have a robotic vulture that tells hunting jokes. The mullet count was low, though. There were two mullets and three mohawks, so the proper mullet-to-mohawk ratio was adhered to.

Everywhere we went in Tennessee the streets were full of Alabama residents who had fled the deteriorating conditions. However, the array of redneck activities was enough to keep us entertained enough not to dwell on things for long. I got drunk at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and ate country food in an old mill.

Going Home

We had heard that on Monday, five days after the tornadoes, the power would be back on. We arrived in town on Monday afternoon, but there was still no power. Things were slowly getting back to normal in town- gas was available and most grocery stores were open, though the inventories were limited. However, things had gotten worse than I'd imagined in our absence. The looting was severe, and at least one looter was shot and killed.

What I hadn't known before is that it isn't just local lowlifes you have to worry about- people actually come from out of state to loot and pillage whatever they can in a crisis. Looters were everywhere, and they reached our street. One piece of looter trash came up to a neighbor's house and shined a flashlight in through the windows, presumably to see whether the house had been abandoned. He shined a flashlight right back at him, and the looter left. Now, I'm originally from Arkansas, and if a flashlight had been pointed into my window, there is zero chance that it would be a flashlight that I pointed back.

It was another day before the power came back on. I didn't feel safe that night, and anyone skulking around outside certainly wouldn't have been safe from me. The curfew was still on for parts of the county, and there were checkpoints stationed around the most affected areas. I also heard helicopters during the evening and night, and I have no idea what that was about.

This is a video made by someone that I know well, and it chronicles some of what it was like. I too did the pacing and staring, trying not to sit still for long. Sitting still overwhelmed you too much. Most of it is over now, at least, for the people who still have their homes. The insurance companies have responded incredibly quickly, and our damage is very minimal compared with a lot of people's damage.

My sense of safety is pretty much gone. I know now what I didn't really understand before- everything that you see around you- the computer, your store of food, the TV, the furniture, the home around you, your family- it can all be gone in minutes. All of this civilization that we put so much time and effort into building- phone lines, emergency services, food distribution- it can all be gone in less than a day. It doesn't matter what kind of house you live in or what emergency procedures you put in place. Large, sturdy homes made from brick were completely flattened. Maybe it's just a matter of time before the rest of them are in the next freak tornado outbreak.

Fighting the Future

I have come up with a few plans, but I don't know how much they will help. I have decided to:

-Get smartphones. I hate them, I think they make people lazy and stupid, but they would have been ridiculously useful during the outbreak day and in the days afterward. I finally have to admit that they may possibly be helpful.

-Try to get a tornado shelter. They are pricey, and there is a risk of debris falling on top of it and trapping you in it, but that's better than the alternatives. I'm going to find an affordable one, and it's going in the ground.

-Move to Maine. They don't have tornadoes in Maine. At all. Maine is cold and Stephen King lives there, but it's a better alternative to living in tornado land. I think in a year we could make the move and leave tornadoes behind.

-Keep tons of water on hand at all times. It will be a cold day in hell before I have any fewer than four flats of bottled water on hand or less than 3/4 of a tank of gas.

So that's it. If you read this far, I appreciate it. I don't know that I expect anyone to read this far, but I needed to get all of this out and to frame it as something that is over now. It's a complete tale with a beginning and a firm ending. Someone that I've known for years had his house flattened completely, as did several of the offsprings' classmates. For them this will go on and on. But for us, with minimal damage and no injuries, it's over.

Also? Screw the Red Cross.

Long Post Coming

Since the events of last week, I've been trying to organize my thoughts about what happened to me and to the area as a whole. I want to write something, maybe many things, about the experiences with the tornadoes and what came afterward, but I don't know what I am and am not willing to share just yet. I'm planning a blog post or two, two apocalyptic short stories and a few informational articles out of it all. But for right now, I'm just trying hard not to think about any of it anymore.