In Alabama, tornados are like rain storms. They happen constantly, many people have underground tornado shelters at their homes, our schools have tornado drills monthly, and there isn't a place out of ear shot of a tornado siren. I thought this was normal until last week when North Carolina was hit by a massive tornado and I never heard a siren- turns out they don't have sirens at all. But the point is, we Alabamians are used to tornados.
Yesterday afternoon my best friend called me- wait- backstory. My best friend, (K), and I met when she was 4 and I was 5 and have been inseparable our entire lives- despite living in different cities/states the entire time. She is the only person who has been in my life continuously, and has been my strength through many many hard times. K may not be blood, but that makes our sisterhood even stronger, because it is by choice.
Yesterday K called me in the middle of the day- strange in the first place since she works more than full time- and sounded..almost hysterical. Her boss's home and a good friends home had been hit by a tornado that morning and the storms were not scheduled to end any time soon. She said she was scared. As I said before, we Alabamians are used to tornados, they do not scare us.
If K was scared, I needed to be watching the news. Problem with that is, it is very difficult to find good coverage of storms happening on the other side of the country. Luckily her local news station just happens to have a live stream on their website. When yet another tornado warning popped up for her town, (Cullman, Al), I called her back and stayed on the phone with her as she, her mother, and little brother took shelter in a bathroom in the center of their quaint historic downtown Cullman home. I told her I would keep an eye on the news and let her know when it was over- and we hung up.
Then- within minutes- the news switched to live stream and showed this.
Then the newscaster told me- as if he were speaking just for me- that this tornado was passing, and then had passed through historic downtown Cullman. I am dialing.. no answer. No voicemail. Just two rings and then silence. Again and the same thing. Then the newscaster speaks to me again and tells me he is getting reports that many homes in the historic downtown neighborhood are leveled and that he expects fatalities. Still dialing, over and over and over again like an insane ex girlfriend. Nothing. Nothing but the most horrible nauseating silence I have ever heard. I had to go there- find her- help- something- but it's a 10 hour drive through the worst storm of the century and I have a daughter now. I call her house phone, her moms cell phone, and every single other person I know in that town but no one answers and I am helpless. Back to the news. Maybe my friend the newscaster has already checked on her for me- but the tornado that ripped through her town is now onto other towns and so is friend newscaster.
K knows I was watching. She knows I need to hear from her. But my phone is not ringing. After 30 or so more phone calls and 30 or so more little heartbreaks when the ringing stopped, I was in tears. Just a little while before I had been talking to her and now she was probably underneath a pile of rubble and there was absolutely nothing I could do. As the minutes passed without contact it seemed more and more possible that the tornado on my computer screen had killed my best friend. The helplessness overcame me, and I sat staring and quiet into my somehow unchanged home while my daughter babbled happily, completely unaware.
K called about an hour later. The tornado had leveled the majority of her neighborhood and temporarily taken out all phone service, but left her home mostly undamaged. I wanted to yell at her, to tell her never to be in the same city as a tornado again, or to move to a safer state, but you can't control nature. The tears flooded. Never have I been so overcome with relief and gratitude. But the storms continued, and many many people died.
The fatalities in Alabama from yesterday's storm have reached 125 so far, with 50 in critical condition, many unaccounted for, and countless probably undiscovered in the rubble. Across the southern states more deaths push the total up to 159 in just one day from just one storm. As the death tole continues to rise my heart breaks for my home state and all of the hundreds of people who have lost loved ones, homes, and businesses. Next week I am going home, and I vow to do anything possible to help my beautiful state heal.
In just a couple of hours this storm will be upon us here in NC, and though it is not expected to be as severe as it was in Alabama, it is a very dangerous storm. I will be hiding in my closet with my daughter. Please, dear friends, stay safe. And do not underestimate the wrath of this "thunderstorm."