I’m putting this part up front. Whether you read my ramblings or not, please, please donate to tornado disaster relief. As with other recent fund-raising efforts, there are several ways you can easily donate $10.
West Alabama Food Bank: text FOOD to 27722
The United Way Central Alabama: text TORNADO to 50555
American Red Cross: text REDCROSS to 90999
Salvation Army: text GIVE to 80888
The Alabama governor’s office has set up a website for donations here. If you can volunteer to go in and help with cleanup, especially if you have specific skills, you can register here and will be contacted as needed. (I did.) Editing to add one more site: Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa has information on sending supplies directly, including locations in different states.
I’ll also repeat something I said elsewhere: If you ever said “take care of our own first,” especially about the Japan earthquake, but haven’t done anything for tornado victims, then shut your damn trap.
Now, for the rest of the post.
I’m a Georgia native. I’ve lived here all my life, except for three and a half years in New Jersey, and college in Alabama.
Those towns you’re seeing on the news? The ones that, in some cases, basically no longer exist? Chances are, I’ve been there. Or through there. Or I have friends, family members, old school buddies who live there, or who have close family or friends there.
To say I’m heartsick is an understatement.
Ringgold, Georgia, population less than 25,000, sits just off Interstate 75, a short distance south of the Tennessee state line. It’s the county seat of Catoosa County. If you’ve ever driving along that stretch of interstate, you’ve been there. Maybe you stopped for a snack or to gas up. Wednesday evening, an EF-4 tornado, only the eighth in state history, almost erased it from the map. Eight people are confirmed dead in Ringgold, seven of them found with 200 yards of each other, including a family of four. The tornado killed twelve more along its 48-mile path into Tennessee. The high school and middle school were heavily damaged. Many businesses were destroyed.
Two EF-3 tornadoes killed at least four people south of Atlanta, in the area around Jackson. Another died in the EF-3 that hit Rabun County, way up in the tip of the northeast corner of the state. Two more tornadoes hit the Dade County area in north Georgia, near Jasper; one of those was an EF-3. In all, 15 people died in Georgia.
And yet all of that is a drop in the bucket compared to what happened across the state line to our west.
Most people in the United States have heard of Tuscaloosa, if they’ve ever paid any attention at all to college sports. It’s home to the University of Alabama, a long-time football powerhouse in the Southeastern Conference, where legendary coach Bear Bryant’s name is still spoken with reverence and awe. On Wednesday, it suffered the deadliest single tornado hit in the US since 1955. Whole neighborhoods were scrubbed away. The storm continued into the northern suburbs of Birmingham, and the picture from the ABC 33/40 SkyCam of a mile-wide wedge tornado bearing down on the city, filling the screen in all directions, is something I’m not likely to forget any time soon. Right now, this tornado’s preliminary rating is EF-4, but the National Weather Service hasn’t been able to complete its damage survey in that area, ironically because the damage is so severe and widespread. It’ll be an EF-5 when they’re done. It’s impossible to be otherwise, with that scale of destruction.
The University of Alabama cancelled the rest of its spring term and postponed commencement until August. Students were urged to go home if they could do so safely. Many of the school’s food service employees lived in the area where the worst destruction occurred. Many of them are still missing.
Northern Alabama counted at least two EF-5 and five EF-4 tornadoes on Wednesday, and that doesn’t count the one that hit Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. That doesn’t count the multiple EF-3 storms either. Some of those ratings are preliminary and could go up.
It’s not really possible to overstate the scale of the disaster. Cullman, Alabama’s business district was nearly wiped away. The tiny town of Phil Campbell, population around 1,000 (even smaller than the little spot in south Georgia where I grew up), is for all intents and purposes gone, and with it at least 25 of its residents. That’s a fatality rate of about 2.5%, if you’re keeping count.
Hackleburg, south of Huntsville in the northwestern corner of the state, took one of the EF-5 hits and lost 25 or more of its 1,500 residents. Huntsville was slammed by a tornado that also flattened much of Athens, Alabama, population under 25,000. Athens is home to the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, which lost power due to the storms and had to be shut down.
In all, 249 deaths have been confirmed in Alabama alone, by far the bulk of the total, which stands at 342 as I write this and will certainly go up before all is said and done. Nearly all died on April 27, which had 259 tornado reports in 16 states and now ranks as the second deadliest single tornado outbreak day in US history.
One thing to keep in mind with all of this is that the Southeast just does not have tornadoes like these. We normally have single, relatively small tornadoes that drop down and do a little damage and then pull back up and maybe touch down briefly somewhere else. It is very, very rare for us to have long-track, violent, huge tornadoes like these, and the likelihood of one after another? I can’t remember an outbreak like this in my lifetime, and I’m a weather geek. I pay attention to these things.
The fact is, when you’re facing down an EF-5 tornado with winds in the range of 200 miles per hour, the only remotely safe place is underground. We don’t have storm cellars in the Southeast like they do in the Midwest. Some homes have basements, and a handful have some kind of specially reinforced shelter or safe room in the house. Otherwise, it’s a closet, or the bathtub, or an interior hallway. In these storms, people who sheltered in each of those places died.
(Most people don’t know that they might be safer in their car than in their home, especially if home is a trailer. Not long ago, the weather experts changed their advice about getting out of your car if you’re caught out in a storm. Ducking down so your head is below dash level will protect you more than lying in a ditch or staying in a flimsy building.)
The thing we all have to remember when something like this happens is that it could just as easily have been us. I was in Atlanta, right in the path of the storm system, but by some stroke of luck, the storms split and went around us. We’ve had tornadoes in town before, including the one that hit downtown just a few years ago, but this time, we were spared. Next time, we may not be so lucky.
I just don’t have any words left, except to say again, please, if you can help in any way, please do.