I thought I was going home for Easter. Turns out I was going home to sit in the basement with Mom and Dad through the worst tornado Tuscaloosa, Alabama has seen in generations.
I was supposed to fly out early Wednesday morning but the storms were already brewing so I had delayed my flight to Thursday. I thought we'd sit through a few heavy storms on Wednesday and then I would drive to the airport the next morning.
Looking back now, my concerns about getting to the airport seem ludicrous because an F5 tornado was heading right for our backyard.
In the early afternoon Mom and Dad and I realized the storms were serious when our local weatherman, James Spann, hijacked the TV broadcast and started streaming news about the approaching tornadoes. There were a bunch of them and they all looked mean.
Modern technology is great in many ways because James could show us radar and images and streaming video and all kinds of great stuff about the storms. He told us a twister was going to hit Tuscaloosa around 4:45. It's scary when someone gives you an educated guess about What Time You Might Die.
He pointed to what he thought would be the storm's approximate path and he sent chills up my spine when he said it would likely go through Alberta City, which is where we were. Again, James was surprisingly accurate, the storm took almost the exact path he had predicted. I'm sure that all this technology, combined with James' analysis of it, saved many lives that day.
Mom and Dad and I were hunkered down in the basement watching James and the weather report. We had candles and flashlights and the weather radio and I had my laptop too, which turned out to be a serendipitous thing.
Remember I mentioned how great all the modern technology is? Well, it didn't seem so great when the tornado got dangerously close to Tuscaloosa and we got to look our storm straight in the eye as it churned towards our city. We could see it was a monster - it was a mile wide and it was hugging the ground like a vacuum cleaner.
To put that into perspective, the average tornado is around 100-500 feet wide at the base and it skips over the landscape. I've never heard of one that is over 5,000 feet wide and stays on the ground.
And this one was headed directly for us in Alberta City.
Just as James was shouting, "If you're in Tuscaloosa take cover immediately!" we lost power... No more images, no more radar, no more James Spann. Just us in the terrifying blackness.
Although we had brought flashlights with us to the basement we couldn't find them now in the dark (note to self: you really need to keep the flashlight in your hand) but my MacBook Air was in my lap and it gave off a nice glow. We used it to light our path to the safest room in the basement, where we got down on the floor and pulled a mattress over our heads.
That's when I heard the freight train noise and I knew the storm was close. I can't even describe the sound to you. It was adjectives like HUGE and POWERFUL and RIPPING come to life. It was I-DON'T-CARE-WHO-OR-WHAT-YOU-ARE-YOU'RE-IN-MY-PATH. It was HORRIBLE.
I could hear things hitting the roof outside. Mom still had the weather radio on and I asked her to turn it off. "I think our ears are going to tell us more now than your radio will," I told her.
After about a minute the freight train passed. We waited a few minutes and then emerged into the daylight to see trees down on power lines, branches and debris all over the neighborhood, but no one was hurt and no homes had serious damage. We were so lucky. Just 1/8 of a mile to the north complete neighborhoods were wiped out. Gone. All that's left are piles of rubble and remnants of trees. It looks like a bomb went off there.
This is my hometown.
There was a tree house on Forest Lake where I got my first kiss.
Krispy Kreme was the place where Christi and I played hooky on Sunday mornings with my Dad. Lemon-filled for me, chocolate with peanuts for her.
Rosedale Baptist Church was reportedly haunted and on weekend nights we used to sit in the parking lot and scare ourselves silly, claiming that we had seen a face in the 2nd floor window.
All that stuff is gone now. Dozens of people are dead or missing.
I'm grateful that we're alive.