An F4 tornado ripped through my hometown of Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27 last year, killing more than 40 people and leaving a mile-wide path of destruction through the middle of town.
Within three days, we packed up the kids and drove one hour south from our home in Birmingham to see the damage up close and help clean up the sanctuary of my childhood church that sat right in the tornado’s path.
It wasn’t pretty. (To read more about my experience with the historic tornado, click here.) Taking my then four-year-old William into that war zone was not a good idea. The devastation surrounding my church looked like post-Hurricane Katrina, with spray-painted Xs marking which homes had been inspected and whether bodies were found there. My two-year-old called them “boo boos.” William soaked it in and might never let the memory go.
We went to help in recovery efforts three weekends in a row after the tornado struck and each time William stood in the middle of it. By summertime, he was jumping every time a neighbor ran a leaf blower, thinking it was the tornado siren going off. He doesn’t sleep well on nights when it simply rains and can be found crying at the top of the stairs just about every time it thunders and lightnings (which happens a lot in the Deep South).
When my husband and I went to bed on Jan. 22, weather reports warned of severe storms headed our way during the early morning hours. We looked at each other and knew we would be soothing a little boy to sleep at some point that night.
At 3:15 a.m., we were awakened by the tornado sirens. The weather folks on TV said the confirmed tornado was about 30 miles away and headed to our town of Trussville at 60 mph. So we waited. William woke up at some point – not from the sirens, ironically, but from the thunder. When the broadcasters said it was headed for Deerfoot Parkway – about a half mile from our house – we ran.
I dashed upstairs and grabbed the two-year-old out of her crib and followed the family to our saferoom. We searched for helmets - newly recommended for preventing head injuries. William chose his catcher’s helmet from T-ball. I propped a bike helmet on Alli’s head and we waited. The lights went out, which freaked William out, but thank goodness he was wearing glow-in-the-dark pajamas that night. It helped knowing where he was as he flitted nervously about.
We listened to a battery-operated radio until the broadcasters said the storm was a good ways north of us, and then we went upstairs to a perfectly intact house.
I put the baby back in her crib – she had amazingly slept through the whole ordeal – and we climbed back in bed. It was 4:45 a.m. and William, who never sleeps with us, was cuddled under the covers attempting to go back to sleep between us.
We woke up around 6 a.m. with texts from concerned family and friends and the news that the neighborhoods only two or three miles away had been devastated. It nicked our current church, doing minor damage to the playground and a sign.
We were very grateful for making it out OK when others, including a 16-year-old in a nearby neighborhood, did not. We were grateful for hearing the tornado sirens and for the terrific weather coverage by all the Birmingham television stations.
And we learned a few valuable lessons during this:
1) Wear shoes and throw on some real clothes, not just boxers and a T-shirt, because it could be the only clothes you own after a direct hit.
2) Keep a flashlight – with working batteries – and a battery-operated radio in your saferoom. My husband had to go upstairs to hunt one down when it could have been the last thing he looked for.
3) Consider keeping a bag of clothes and essentials in the saferoom for future use.
Most of all, I learned to stay CALM when you have a kid who is already terrified by storms. Children feed off their parents’ moods and if you’re cool and collected and matter-of-fact, they will be too.
It’s hard to shelter William from seeing the damage from this week’s storms when it’s right by his daycare. But we can control how much television coverage we watch while he’s around so we don’t give him a storm reality overload. We’re still working with William to overcome his storm fears, but it’s only January. The real peak storm season is still three months away, and that’s when the real work of hopefully getting him past the horror will begin.
Cindy F. Crawford is the editor of a news publication in Birmingham, Ala., and the proud parent of two spirited young children.
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