Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Six years back...

"During a 12-hour period in the evening and early morning of February 5-6, 2008, 87 tornadoes occurred in nine states with 57 fatalities in four states. This is the second largest February tornado outbreak since 1950 (beginning year of official tornado database) in terms of fatalities and the largest since May 31, 1985. Fatalities occurred in Arkansas, Tennessee,Kentucky, and Alabama. There were five violent Enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale 4 tornadoes reported; two each in Tennessee and Alabama, and one in Arkansas. The EF4 tornado in Arkansas had a remarkable 122-mile continuous damage path; this was the longest path length of a tornado in the state since at least 1950. A deadly EF3 tornado that touched down northeast of Nashville, Tennessee, carved a 51- mile path of destruction claiming 22 lives. This was the deadliest tornado in the United States since a tornado in Evansville, Indiana, November 2005 killed 25 people." - Taken from the Service Assessment,Super Tuesday Tornado Outbreak of February 5-6, 2008, National Weather Service

Six years ago tonight I looked out at what was left of Union University after an a direct hit by an EF 4 tornado. It is by the grace of God alone that no one died that night. I stared at the rubble of not one, but two dorm complexes wondering how many of my friends had died that night. 

We knew bad weather was coming, my roommates and I had charged our phones, put on our sneakers and packed a bag, making a promise that no one would know that we did if nothing happened. We had watched the news footage as the system went through Oklahoma and Arkansas, making its way to us in Tennessee. We saw the news of the "killer" tornado (one of many that night) that was on the ground for over 100 miles and left 13 people dead. We knew it was coming, but we didn't expect this. 

Details. There are a lot of them that I remember. Funny how you remember so many details. I remember the sirens going off and going to the downstairs room's bathroom. Eight of us in that tiny thing. I remember going and getting  a mattress and pulling it over our heads. It was a dorm mattress, so it wasn't going to offer a whole lot of protection, but something was better than nothing.

I remember saying we should pray and then no one volunteered, so I did. I don't remember what was said. I probably rambled. I am not a big fan of praying out loud. The power went out. I remember the sound of glass breaking and the feel of the building shaking. I remember the sound like thunder that just keeps rolling. A high-pitched wind. 

I remember taking my roommates pulse. Not that I could actually count it, since by now we had lost power. I think I wanted to be sure she had a perfusing rhythm. She was born with a congenital heart defect and when the tornado hit, we all had pressure on our ears, but she felt it on her heart. So I'm a little nervous at the moment. I remember thinking that if she didn't, there wasn't even room to lay her down and do CPR. 

I remember getting my flashlight and checking the bathroom after we had pushed the mattress off our heads. I opened the bathroom door to check the living room and see if we could get out. I remember the smell of gas and the thought that I wasn't going to survive a tornado to burn to death in a fire. I remember getting someones shoes out of their bedroom so we could leave. I remember glass had been blown all the way under the bathroom door. I was the one sitting with my back to the door.

I remember after we got out and were walking out of the complex to the parking lot, I looked back and saw the roof was missing on the dorm and telling Jessica not to look back. I remember that just then (maybe 10 minutes after it hit, maybe 15?) that two police officers were coming toward us. I remember telling them I smelled gas. They told us to start a list of our names. We signed so many lists that night.

 Photo Credit: Dr. Jeff Masters,WunderBlog
That night was dubbed "Super Tuesday" in the weather world. The deadliest tornado outbreak in 23 years back then. Even I can see that classic hook echo on the radar :) The Super Tuesday Tornado destroyed or damaged over 80% of Union University's on campus housing.

Photo Credit: Morris Abernathy/Union University

Photo Credit: FEMA

In the aftermath of that night, this photo was taken. I'm on the phone with my mom. They didn't tell her how bad it was until after she had talked to me. She still didn't really understand. She hadn't watched the news. She wanted me to find something to cover my car's blown-out back window since there was another storm coming. Yeah, I knew then that they hadn't told her much :)


They were in a hurry to get us to safety since another line of storms coming through and they didn't know how significant the damage was to other buildings. I tried to help a girl with a leg laceration to the Nursing Building where they had chosen for us to wait until they had a place for all of us to go. Also where my fellow classmates and the professors had raided the supplies to treat the injured that were showing up.

We hadn't gotten far when a police officer showed up in his patrol car and both of us got a ride to building about a half a mile away. I was so grateful! I didn't think I could manage to help her all the way there. I'm short, she was tall. It was awkward. He let us out at the door and I helped her in. I wasn't needed at the first aid station. Which was disappointing, really. I needed to be needed at that point. I felt worthless, though this is the first time I've said those words aloud.

WW0040 Radar 

I was needed though, I found Jessica, my roommate, after searching a couple of the downstairs classrooms. Just in time to sign yet another list and then for them to move us to a different building since they had discovered major roof damage to the one we were in.

They eventually moved us from the second building to the strip mall about half a mile from campus. On foot mind you, since there was so much debris. I remember stepping over plywood and corrugated steel on the way. Walking around cars that look like some child's play toy tossed about.

There had been talk of moving the students to a shelter. Jessica and I had been on the phone with one of our professors and he was coming to get us. We chose to go off a bit to a restaurant bench and wait it out there. We quickly changed our minds and went in front of one of the stores hoping he would get there before they sent us to a shelter for the night.

Not one student spent the night in a shelter. Professors, friends, families stepped up to house students in their homes that night. Spencer and his wife, and their little dog, picked us up and took us to their home. She gave us clean clothes to sleep in, washed ours since they were covered in mud. There wasn't a whole lot of sleeping done. The second line of storms came through, no tornadoes, but for me, thunder and wind made me anxious so there was little chance of sleeping through it.

I had given my go bag so someone to carry since I stayed to help those who might need it. So I didn't have my charger or any of the things that I had packed. Real smart move, Sydney.

The next day we went back to campus. My soon to be Father-in-Law came and picked me up. We were hoping to be able to get to my car and move it off campus. We waited for several hours hoping that they would let us in today. After a couple of hours they didn't, so we decided to make the 2 hour drive back. Half way there they started letting students in. I was just tried and wanting my mama, so we just kept driving. I saw damage everywhere on the way back.

The next day my mom took me back to UU and we picked up my car. I think mine was the only one out of the 4 roommates that actually started. I remember trying to use mine to jump off Leslie's since it was dead, but I don't think it worked. We took some pictures then Jessica (?) and I went to the dealership and dropped my car off and picked up my rental. A minivan. While my mom went to Memphis for my sister's ballet class (maybe?) Jessica and I drove home. I dropped her off at her parents house and went home.

I was able to pick up my belongings that had been cleaned out of my room sometime the next week. Grey 30D. My paint box still has it written in Sharpie on the lid. I got a lot, almost all,  of my things back. Random things were missing like one of a pair of shoes. One of my box sets of DVDs. But tornadoes aren't all that picky with what they suck into the atmosphere. I was lucky. I felt guilty too. The girl in front of me got a scarf back. A scarf. That's it.

I commuted 30 miles to campus for the rest of the semester. A family I taught 3 year old choir with at FBC Jackson took me in and let me live with them. Their daughter was one of my flower girls at my wedding.

We graduated on time. All clinical requirements met. The two weeks of class and clinical that we lost were dispersed throughout the rest of the semester. We were grateful.

So six years later I'm holed up in my house with snow and ice outside, and again I can find a few things to be grateful for. The weather, my friends, my University, my teachers, and most of all, that I am alive to give God the glory!

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