I’m in my kitchen cooking dinner for my middle and youngest sons: spaghetti or chicken fingers or maybe eggs and bacon. It’s late April 2011 in Georgia. The dogwood trees and pink azaleas are in bloom, and the billowing curtains of yellow pollen are almost gone. The weather is unpredictable this time of year in the Deep South: one day might be as warm and still as summer, while the next might carry the cool winds of winter. Today, however, is unusually warm. I’m watching the national news. President Obama is in the third year of his first term. I’m reminded of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that took place one month earlier in Japan. In two days, Prince William and Catherine Middleton will wed. And although we don’t know it, we are five days away from the death of Osama Bin Laden. Life is good and life is bad, as always.
My phone rings.
It’s my husband, calling from work. “Bad weather is moving into Alabama,” he says.
“Okay,” I respond, unconcerned. Bad weather comes and goes every spring, I’ve experienced this my entire southern life. I try to muster up some interest. “What kind of bad weather?”
“Tornadoes,” he says. I hear the alarm in his voice. “They’re saying a big one is headed for Tuscaloosa.”
Now I am interested. I’m concerned. Our oldest son is finishing his freshman year at The University of Alabama.
“Have you talked to him?” I ask.
“Yes, he’s in his dorm.”
“Did you tell him to go to the basement? Do they even have a basement?” I start to worry. I know teenaged boys because I have three; they don’t take severe weather seriously.
“I told him,” my husband says. I flip to The Weather Channel to find out what is happening, and I call my nineteen-year-old son. Thank God, he answers.
Jack is in his apartment dorm, studying for a Chemistry final. It’s a Wednesday around 5:00 CDT. His three roommates are there, too. He’s been told by my husband, and alerted by the university to go to a safe place. But he’s received several weather warnings over the past two weeks and he’s not worried. The four boys look out the third floor window of their apartment dorm, wondering if they’ll see something. The window faces southwest toward the football stadium, which is roughly a half-mile away.
And then they see it.
“Holy shit,” Jack says, or maybe they all say.
It’s roaring into view from behind the enormous structure. One of the boys points his phone in its direction and begins filming. It’s dark and swirling and sounds like thunder. It’s as if it were alive. And suddenly they are face-to-face with an EF4 multiple-vortex tornado.
Now that they know the tornado is real, my son and his roommates take action and head down to the lobby of the dorm. They don’t know which way the tornado will track, so all they can do is wait and hope and pray the churning behemoth will pass.
But they don’t have to wait long. In no time, the tornado is gone, and for them, the excitement and danger are over. Curious, Jack gets into his Jeep and drives around campus to see what’s happened. Aside from a few fallen tree limbs, everything looks fine. He sees no school buildings damaged, no destruction, no people in distress. It’s no big deal, he naturally assumes.
But it is a big deal.
It’s one of the biggest deals ever in Alabama.
The power is out, the cell phone service is all but gone, and the city is in ruins. The university cancels finals and tells the students to go home. My son grabs a few essentials, winds his way through back roads and neighborhoods to find a way out, and heads to Birmingham where he waits with my in-laws to decide his next move. The amazing first responders along with thousands of selfless volunteers take control, and after a few days, the students are allowed back on campus.
Jack and my mother-in-law, who has graciously offered to help, return to Tuscaloosa to load his things. They drive back into town. Some of the main roads have reopened and he’s able to see the tornado’s path. He’s shocked; it looks like a different city. The one he knew is gone. Streets are closed and restaurants, businesses, and apartments are not only damaged, but unrecognizable. Many no longer exist. Rubble lies everywhere. Trees are nothing more than stripped, mangled sticks. It looks like a bomb has hit, as people who witness the aftermath of a tornado always say.
Because it always does.
According to NOAA and The National Weather Service, on April 27, 2011, the 1.5 mile-wide tornado that came so close to my son, brought with it 190 mph winds and left an 80.7-mile path of destruction between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. It lasted 1 hour 31 minutes and caused $2.4 billion damage.
The tornado killed 44 people that day in the Tuscaloosa area alone. Six of them were University of Alabama students. Sixty-four people were killed statewide, sixty-four precious lives gone, sixty-four tragedies.
One of those fatal tragedies was my husband’s cousin.
But miraculously, one of them was not my son.
Katy D. Shelton is a freelance writer and editor for www.BeaconPeople.org and Second Stories Book. She has been published in Lake Magazine, The Alex City Outlook, Scary Mommy, and Grown and Flown. She has three adult sons and lives with her husband John on Lake Martin in Alexander City, AL. Read more by Katy on www.whatsheread.wordpress.com and connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.