Wednesday, April 27, 2011.
I can’t really remember what I was doing throughout the day. I probably had classes or something that I went to… Maybe I had Stage Movement that day. It’s possible I went to my journalism class. At this point, it’s all inconsequential.
I was the Research Editor for the Corolla that year. The school’s yearbook was kind of the awkward child with special needs that no one really knew exactly what to do with or how to handle, save for the very occasional editor who nursed it and treated it with kindness and respect. Working under Kathleen Buccleugh, I was given pretty much free reign on my scheduling. I just had to get all my work done. Often times, though, I’d find myself up in the attic of that rickety, crappy old former frat house trying not to die of heat and simply using the free computer lab my key granted me access to. Sometimes, I’d do school work if my Corolla duties were done/at a standstill. Sometimes, I’d just goof off and play games, maybe listen to some music.
I was up in the attic of that dilapidated building in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium when the siren went off. It was maybe the third or fourth time the sirens had gone off in the past couple of weeks. One time, I was standing right next to it. Another, I was trapped in the bus hub for probably a couple of hours, with one kind soul to talk to, my friend and bus riding partner Sydney Rowles. This time, I was alone in the attic while the building warned me to move downstairs. I scoffed and ignored it. I mean, I’ve lived through tons of tornadoes. I’m from Huntsville. Not only are these alarms usually just small warnings, but tornadoes rarely ever do anything extreme and supremely damaging on a massive scale in Alabama. There was nothing to worry about.
But, eventually, Terry Siggers, one of the staff in the Office of Student Media, came up stairs to make sure everyone was moving to the basement. I sighed, rolled my eyes and went down there. Fortunately, I had my crappy laptop with me so I could continue doing whatever it was I had been up to at the time.
Already downstairs were most of the staff of The Crimson White and several of the OSM staff, including Paul Wright and Mark Mayfield. While we were down there, in the safest place this kindling death trap of a building could offer, there was talk of some tornado stuff. People had tuned in on their computers to listen to local weatherman James Spann, and I decided to follow suit on my laptop. Which ended up being an okay idea since, not too long after, the power went out and my laptop was the only thing left running. …for about six more minutes. But in that six minutes, we saw the tornado on the news feed. It seemed pretty big, and based on what Spann was saying, it sounded like the tornado was headed straight at us. I was still joking a bit, not really worried. I didn’t duck under any tables, there was nothing to really fear.
Mark opened the basement door, curious to see what was going on. Yes, the basement had a wall adjacent to the outside. Very safe. When he opened the door, we could see the tornado looming behind the stadium. Massive. It didn’t even really seem like a tornado, just a gray sky. Mark quickly shut the door and told people to get under tables. I still didn’t. I may have ducked my head a bit, I guess, but still. Nothing to worry about. It was all okay.
Someone showed me the picture SGA president James Fowler took of the tornado, right across the street from us. I couldn’t even tell it was a tornado. There was only a small corner of sky peeking through at the very bottom to tell the difference between monster and normalcy.
Eventually, the sirens ended. Nothing happened to us. Reports flooded in about dorms being hit, car dealerships being destroyed, 15th being severely damaged. But clearly this wasn’t all true. Twitter would have exploded if a dorm was hit, right? You take these things with a grain of salt. So I shrugged it off and left the building.
I ran into Keegan Butler on my way out, one of my theatre friends. I was figuring on doing my usual and walking the mile or two home, but after chatting with him, we decided to head to Rowand-Johnson and see what was going on. So many of my theatre friends were there, hiding in the comfort of camaraderie and a building that doubles as a bomb shelter. And, for a while, it was nice. But I started to feel claustrophobic. There was too much happening, too much going on. Some people were heading out, and I asked Glenn Halcomb if he could give me a ride back to my place at The Bluffs off of Jack Warner. He did.
At the time, I was living alone in a two bedroom apartment. My roommate had graduated in December and left, leaving me free to do what I want. But when I got there this time, there was no power. I couldn’t boot up my PC and listen to music, goof off on the internet. I couldn’t adjust the A/C or turn on a fan. I just sat there in the screaming, choking silence.
It was still a little light outside. I think it was about 4 or 5 p.m. So, for the first time in ages, I grabbed a book to read for pleasure, sat on the living room couch and read by the dying light of day. And die it eventually did.
When it did, I was left alone in the dark. No light. No sound. No company.
Have you ever been somewhere where there is literally no sound? Where all you can hear is the sound you make? Where the stillness is a living thing, crawling around you, choking you? Where it’s so quiet, it won’t ever stay quiet?
I slept. It wasn’t a good sleep. It took far too long to battle my surroundings and become comfortable. I had to sleep on the living room couch because my room was literally pitch black. I was afraid to go in there. It felt wrong.
After a couple of hours, I woke up. I couldn’t stand being in that apartment any longer. I had to leave. I had to get out of there.
I decided to walk back to RoJo to see if anyone was still there. Rain decided to pour down on me viciously from the moment I stepped onto the side of Jack Warner until the moment I stepped onto campus. The front of my body was soaked. My back remained bone dry.
I received texts sometime around this time about rehearsal for my a capella group, Subject to Change. We were going to try to rehearse. But as the fullness of what was going on started to sink in, rehearsal was canceled.
When I returned, Glenn thought I was silly to have walked back after having asked to leave… but I couldn’t explain it. I just had to go back. Eventually, I dried out. I found Michael Luwoye, who, as always, had his guitar with him. He was supposed to play for my Senior Guerrilla act. I asked him if we could practice. As he played, I sang my songs for the act, “Hallelujah” as covered by Rufus Wainwright and “Boat Song” by Ludo. It helped me feel better. I quietly, strongly hoped it helped other people feel better, too.
Eventually, everyone started to go home, hours later. I would again be alone. I decided to be alone somewhere I had pillows and walked back to my apartment. I braved the pitch blackness of my room and fell asleep quickly, I think mostly so I could avoid the darkness.
When I woke up the next morning, sometime early, I realized I didn’t have any food I could eat. My food was all in the refrigerator and freezer, and I wasn’t going to open either of those and let what little cool air I had in there escape. I sat there, unable to think of what I should do. My phone had no service, I had no one I knew near me, no car to get food… So, I decided to walk to campus and find friends.
Walking down Jack Warner with no traffic and a frightening continuance of silence was jarring. It made it very hard to think. So I decided not to.
I went to Lauren Liebe and Tiara Dees’ apartment at Bryce Lawn simply because I couldn’t think of anywhere else or anyone else to go to. We hooked up with Stephen Swain and his roommate, I believe, and maybe one or two others and decided to go out to Northport and see what we could work out. Cars needed gas, we needed food and recharged batteries.
We managed to fight through the crowds of people and National Guard vehicles that were swarming Northport and get gas at a station near the intersection with McFarland and Lurleen Wallace. We went across to Publix and got food. I bought lots of bagels, peanuts and rice cakes. Water and the like were pretty much all gone, but I had a lot of sodas back at my apartment. Bought a few more anyway. Lauren and I ate from the Publix deli while everyone else headed to McDonalds. After we were done, we went there, too. The McDonalds was crowded. Stephen was smart and thought to bring a surge protector. Soon, tens of people were asking to use a slot to charge their phone and call/text their loved ones.
While we were there, my texts and phone messages began to flood in. Parents, siblings worried, wondering if I was okay. I couldn’t get a call to them, though. Their service was dead, or their cell phones were out of batteries. Fortunately, I could update Facebook from Tiara’s computer, and my sisters had taken their laptops to Hooters in Huntsville to leech the free WiFi and get some food. Contact was made.
I think we may have eaten dinner on campus at Lakeside Dining Hall. Maybe. We were at that McDonalds for hours.
That night, my power came back on. I was lucky. So very lucky. Even campus took several days to get power back.
Finals were canceled. I took my Philosophy final, the only one I decided to take, sitting in Little Italy on the Strip.
I avoided going out to see the damage. I avoided it like crazy. I couldn’t handle it. It wasn’t until almost a full month after the tornado that I went to visit a friend in Birmingham and saw first hand what had happened.
I just couldn’t think about any of it. I was scared. I still am.
I tried to give to the community in ways I knew I could. In ways I knew I could handle. While the tornado ruined schedules, ruined plans… ruined lives and businesses and homes… Our a capella group still managed to perform our concert. But now, it wasn’t about us. It was about the tornado, the community. Money we raised went straight to the relief efforts. We still managed to perform the APO production of “blackout.” I was Assistant Stage Manager at the time. We used the play to gather supplies for the relief effort.
It wasn’t much. I felt pathetic. I feel pathetic. Pathetic and small and worthless and like a wimp. And maybe I was. But for me, it was the best I could do. Seeing my home of the past five years ravaged wasn’t something I thought I could handle. I had never had something like that happen to me before. I just did what I knew I could handle and tried to ignore all the bad I knew had occurred.
Friday, April 27, 2012.
I didn’t know anyone that died in the tornado. I knew many who lost their homes, but I was fortunate enough to avoid loss of life or property.
I feel guilty sometimes with that knowledge. Why didn’t I give all of my possessions? Why didn’t I give all of my money? Why didn’t I do more to help those affected?
I just try to live with it. To ignore the hurt and pain of my city.
Yes, I lived in Huntsville for most of my life… but Tuscaloosa still feels like my city. It’s where I really grew attached to.
…every day, I drive past the remnants of the scar carved into the landscape. Heading to work, I take Kicker Road and drive right past devastation. Trees and houses and churches and landscape altered.
Sometimes I feel our pace for healing our city is too slow. But I think that’s because, as much as I continue to try and push it out of my mind, I am still hurt and bothered by what happened.
There was so much beauty I missed out on. So many experiences I can’t ever have. There were so many people who lost lives, loved ones, friends, family, jobs, income, health, wealth…
At times, it’s too much to handle.
But what encourages me, when it gets to that point, is just looking around. Seeing Tuscaloosa refuse to be beaten by the greatest tragedy the city has likely faced since the Civil War.
We thrive. We go to work, we go to school, we rebuild. We live.
I’m currently in rehearsals for a theatrical show called “Inside the Tornado.” It’s a reflection on everything that was and that happened. Ten original short plays, written by students at The University of Alabama. Performed at Shelton State Community College. Acted by members of the community all over, of all ages.
I still feel, many times, guilty that I did not give more possessions. But I’ve never been terribly good at that. So, I’m giving what I have: my art. The arts, I wrote a couple months after the tornado for a column in The Crimson White, are as much a necessity in tragedy as resources.
Come check the show out. It’s a good cause… and it’s worth a visit. Some of us give time, money, work… I give what I know I can.
I guess I can take some solace in that.
T-Town. Never Down.