Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tornadoes in Alabama

This post is a simple diary of my own experience on April 27th, lessons learned about preparing your home and family for a natural disaster, and ways to help the victims of tornadoes.

My heart is breaking for the families of those who lost their lives and homes in the tornados that tore through the South last week. The federal government has declared this a category one natural disaster in Alabama, the highest rating possible (the same given  to the damage caused by Katrina). 

Right now, everything else seems so trivial in comparison... What to hang on the walls, the windows, the chairs, a tweet about what someone bought at the thrift store... On the other hand, some people who are grieving for that very reason.  Their homes were lost.  The cozy places they worked to create.  It's suddenly gone.

While our own story isn't anything special, I'm writing so that some lessons I learned on that day will be captured.  Hopefully a person or two may be motivated to prepare themselves as fully as possible.

So here goes...
A lot of people in Birmingham lost power when storms came through early Wednesday morning, but our area was fine for the most part.

I checked in on the weather periodically, but not quite enough to grasp the seriousness of the coming storms. Seth started driving to Mississippi for work, and realized how bad the weather was suppose to be after it was too late to turn around (about 12:00 I think).

All the schools were closed by around 1:00, and a couple-or-three hours later Seth called to tell me everyone was leaving work.  I have a fearless (although completely awesome in most other regards) office that tends to shrug off severe weather conditions like ice on the roads, storms, or tornadoes, so we stayed and I regularly checked a live stream of the local weather station.

A massive tornado hit Cullman, Alabama at 2:30.

Tornado in Cullman, Alabama. Via 

Around 4:00 I checked again.  A tornado was moving through Tuscaloosa.  (For those of you who aren't familiar with Alabama, it's about 45 minutes away from Birmingham.)  It also happens to be where the where my little brother attends school, at the University of Alabama.  And of course I text messaged him and told him to go to a safe place if he wasn't there already.

Around 5:10 I finally left work, and my friend/colleague/boss-lady called to tell me they were expecting the tornado to hit our area Birmingham at 5:30.  I rushed home and walked the dogs immediately, then frantically searched for candles, batteries, and flashlights while watching the news.  That's when I got scared.  Really scared.  I heard such urgency in the voice of James Spann as he directed people in our area to get in a safe place.  Now.

The same friend/colleague/boss-lady I mentioned, lives just a few blocks away and has an incredible view of the Birmingham skyline. She called again and said she could see it moving in our direction, and we should expect it in five or ten minutes.

I thought about going to the super-spooky and super-dirty basement of our condo but was afraid of getting the dogs downstairs and keeping them calm with other any other dogs, so I quickly started clearing out the floor of our small bedroom closet.

They showed shots of the 1-1/2 mile wide EF-4 / EF-5 tornado that was about two miles away and heading in our direction.  Fast.

For the first time in my life, I was scared for my life because of a tornado.  I really wanted to reach out to people I loved, but was so busy creating our "safe place" that there wasn't any time.

There I was, locked in the bedroom with the two dogs, praying for protection and peeping through the blinds for a sign it was here. Then, suddenly, the storm started moving in another direction.  I realize now that if it had hit our place, staying in a closet would have helped very little (if at all) to keep us safe from this.

Tornado damage in Tuscaloosa, AL Via 
Tornado damage in Oak Grove, AL, Via 

Tornado damage in Pleasant Grove, AL Via
My mom called just after it started moving away and was more upset than I've ever heard her.  She had watched as it moved straight towards me, and knew I was alone (not counting the dogs) on the top floor of a condo building.  I think she knew we probably didn't have a good chance if it did come on top of us.

We were so lucky, you guys.  It could have so easily been us.  Our lives.  Our home.  Our memories.  So many people weren't spared.

Here are a few things I learned:
  • Get low.  The tornado leveled homes and buildings to their foundation.  If the tornado had directly hit our place, staying in a closet wouldn't have made a difference.  I should have gone to the basement. 
  • Give yourself time.  I waited too late to leave work and was so rushed to get ready that I could have been unprepared if it had hit us.  
  • Buy a weather radio.  Our cable went out at a crucial time.  Fortunately, the internet still worked and I could continue to stay tuned online.  We don't have a single radio in our place so it was the only way to stay informed.  Something could have happend to the connection.
  • Assemble supplies.  I'm planning to make a storm kit with flashlights, candles, batteries and other essentials so next time they'll be within reach, allowing us to focus on the status of the weather and getting in a safe place.
How can you help?

Here's a great list of ways you can help in the relief effort.  Bottom-line: pray, donate, and/or volunteer.
Alabama tornado relief: How you can help

If you know of any specific needs (listed on the site above or not) please post them below, along with any other tips for how to prepare yourself. 


  1. Erin, my experience was so similar to yours except my boss-lady, who works with me at UAB, lives in Tuscaloosa. Just like your office, we stayed at work until 5. I rushed to get prepared just like you. It was unreal and so scary. When I saw the T-town storm I thought for sure my boss who was in her car on the way home did not make it. Luckily, she pulled over and found cover. By God's grace her house and husband in Tuscaloosa were spared.

    So glad to hear that you and your family our safe.

  2. Abby - Wow. I only had to drive ten minutes... Your commute was longer I'm sure! So dangerous for you both!