The Opposite of StormChasing.

The Alabama Weather Scene has changed since I was a kid.

Not in content so much – I remember tornadoes and warnings and staying indoors as things were flying about Wizard-Of-Oz style from my youth. My mom claims to have sat in a rocking chair on the front porch with me in her arms while a tornado tore through, dropping a tree on the back of our house. (I guess it was just a mother’s instincts to know that the front porch was our safe room that day. Who knows.)

Anyway.

The weather is the same. But the warning time of coming storms has greatly increased, as has the paranoia around those warnings.

When I was a kid, most of Alabama, it seemed, laughed off tornado warnings. In the same way, yet opposite, that we laugh at ourselves for shutting the state down for an inch of snow, we laughed at ourselves for never worrying about tornadoes – they happen all the time, after all.

2011 erased that attitude. We as a state suffer from PTSD of 4-27-11, and we take even thunderstorms seriously now. That, along with tornado prediction technology and coverage being greatly improved since I was a kid, is what has changed Alabama. When you add paranoia + predictions, you get state shut downs.

On Wednesday, a good portion of the state was in Tornado Possibility Dark Color 4 (out of 5 – if we ever get Dark Color 5 again, Chris swears we’re leaving the state), and so out of precaution, every school system closed – even The University of Alabama.

(Except for homeschool. If we’re going to be stuck at home all day, we might as well do school. Poor kids.)

But this type of “Tornado Day” was the weird, unpredictable kind – there would be no “front” or long line of storms coming through that you could watch with dread and trepidation, knowing to the minute when it would reach your neighborhood. It was the mostly sunny day kind, therefore adding to the explosiveness of the atmosphere, with violent pop-up storms coming seemingly out of nowhere in random areas.

Ugh.

Existential weather dread is worse when the sun is shining and the radar is clear. It’s downright ominous.

So I spent the day indoors, checking the radar every 5 seconds, fighting the losing battle of cell phone battery life versus the constant reminder of “Charge your devices in case you lose power!”

We were antsy. SO antsy. It was a beautiful day but even going out into the front yard seemed un-recommended.

Finally, at 5pm, I could take it no more. We were originally supposed to be out of danger by then. There was one small yet nasty storm east of us that the meteorologists were covering nonstop (seriously y’all – hail the size of freaking baseballs), and so no one was giving Birmingham the promised all-clear. There was some sort of “dry line” that was supposed to be coming through any minute, therefore clearing the environment of anymore storms.

You can’t see dry lines. But you can imagine they’re there if you think really hard and are positive you’ll explode to stay indoors for one more second.

So Chris and I decided that surely we were good.

Chris left straight from work to run, and we arranged to meet him at the Botanical Gardens later to trade off so that I could run, and that way the kids could run around the gardens in the meantime.

So we set out on a beautiful summer afternoon. When we got close to the gardens, big fat raindrops began to fall.

Of course.

But it was surely just a sprinkle, so I decided we’d ride up to the top of the city first – for a peek on how it looked on this weirdly sunny stormy day.

As we got closer to the ridge, the skies behind us began to look darker and more ominous. Quite like an Oculus bearing down upon us (for those of you who have already seen “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”)

I checked where Chris was running on my Find My Friends app – a mile away, in the direction of the nastiness.

I should save him. He’s gonna get soaked.

Right after I get my picture.

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I grabbed a couple shots, the dark cloud eerily covering the sun on a clear and innocent-looking day, then began chasing down my husband.

“Okay kids – you’re on Daddy watch. Keep your eyes out your window.”

It took a few turns, but we found him, right as he was crossing the street. He had headphones on, so I yelled at him. “Hey!! Do you need a ride??”

He didn’t even look back. He shot me a peace sign from over his shoulder and kept running. He totally thought I was some random busybody motorist.

I followed him down the road and yelled again. He yelled back that he was okay and kept running.

I drove around the block, parked, and started checking Twitter and the radar. A spectacularly nasty little storm had unpredictably (as predicted) popped up from nowhere and it was headed straight our way, then on toward our house.

Chris took the clue that we’d chased him down and paused to look at his radar. He texted me.

“On second thought, come get me.” (Paraphrased.)

I drove around the block, grabbed my husband, and peeled out to drive to his car.

We discussed what we should do. I wanted to go home and hide in the basement. He wanted to drive away from the storm. I finally realized he didn’t want hail damage on his precious car. He concurred. It made sense – as long as we could decisively tell which way the storm was not headed.

As we got back to his car, things began looking worse. And closer. He quickly formulated a plan and told me to follow him north – to a suburb on the opposite side of the city. We screeched out as rain began falling in earnest and giant lightning bolts started touching down. I might’ve whispered a few choice words just out of earshot of my children (I hope.)

Managing no red lights, we got on the freeway and sped north of town.

In no time, it was a bright, sunny day in front of us and to the left – but behind us and to the right it looked downright gross.

We ended up at a lovely park we’re never close enough to visit (Black Creek Park in Fultondale), taking a nice, calm family walk, while getting multiple texts from neighbors asking if we were okay and sending pictures of hail everywhere and the tree down on our next door neighbor’s house.

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The wind was powerful and dry where we were, and we quickly surmised that we had, indeed, finally found that “dry line”, whatever the heck that was anyway.

We walked down the lovely rails-to-trails path, pausing with a hush to watch some groundhogs scurry into their holes, and finding a playground with delightful eccentricities to add to the beautiful and deceptively placid sunset.

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The kids even found a massively nasty bug they followed around the playground for a good while – clearly a win.

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He was inches long, y’all. I looked him up later and – no lie – he’s called a Hellgrammite. They usually live their entire larval lives (5 years) under rocks in streams, and only emerge if a thunderstorm chases them out. Everything made so much sense.

(Then they’re a full-grown adult for one week before they die – but for that one week they’re the most terrifying, dragon-sized fly you’ve ever seen. Go ahead – Google “Dobson Fly” and see what I mean. Add that to Alabama’s Hunger Games status.)

But I digress. Besides that nightmare, we spent our evening simply enjoying the exultation of successfully fleeing a hail storm.

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Twenty Minutes Away: Revisited.

Sunday was the three year anniversary of Alabama’s unforgettable Tornado Outbreak, the day that brought us 62 tornadoes, killed 140 people, and injured thousands.

Two days after 4/27/11, Prince William and Princess Kate wed. And two days after that, Osama Bin Laden was killed. Needless to say, the national news quickly forgot the fact that Alabama had been decimated.

But we did not. And we have not.

This year’s anniversary came with its own cruelty. We all knew that we were about to be hit with another three day tornado event starting the next day, making the memories of April 27 all the more exquisitely difficult to process.

But despite that, something compelled me to take a drive on Sunday.

Pratt City was the closest community to us that was hit in 2011. And they were hit hard. I had written a blog post titled Twenty Minutes Away sharing photos of that community.

And on Sunday I needed to see. What had changed in three years?

On April 27 2011, this neighborhood was left completely devastated.

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On April 27 2014, they’re still fighting the battle of full recovery.

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On April 27 2011, things looked hopeless.

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But on April 27 2014, hope is palpable.

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On April 27 2011, Their library was ravaged.

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On April 27 2014, they have a new library.

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On April 27 2011, demolition equipment couldn’t even get in to begin hauling off what was left.

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On April 27 2014, heavy machinery was present – but only to help create more new houses.

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On April 27 2011 this neighborhood was brought to its knees.

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On April 27 2014 those knees are still present – but so are the new fabrics of community.

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On April 27 2011, loss was everywhere.

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On April 27 2014, potential is everywhere.

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On April 27 2011 you couldn’t escape the reality.

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On April 27 2014 there are still memories – abandoned foundations, stripped trees, and large, empty fields. But they’re not nearly as agonizing.

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In my entire tour, there was only one thing that hadn’t changed since my last visit.

Their heart.

April 27 2011,

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April 27 2014.

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We are all giving thanks that this week’s tornado outbreak was nothing compared to 2011, but many communities are still hurting – in Arkansas, Oklahoma, MIssissippi, and Alabama. I will be praying for this same heart and courage in the communities that are about to begin their own rebuilding.

4-27-2011.

One year ago today changed my life forever.

But yet, the damage to me personally was so miniscule compared to thousands of other people in my state, some living only twenty minutes away.

Like bear claws ripping through flesh, 62 tornadoes tormented Alabama, forever altering the course of 691 miles of our beautiful state.

Tornado Paths April 27Photo from NOAA National Weather Service Birmingham Office.

Almost 2,000 people were injured. 140 people lost their lives. And ALL of us suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome from what was the most ominously horrifying day of our lives.

The massive paths of these tornadoes are still visible from the air – our state had hundreds of miles of what looks like power line trails cut through our city centers, our neighborhoods, our forests, and our farmland.

And from the ground, they are exquisitely painful to see.

But there’s hope, too. And shocking amounts of love.

So many of you poured out your kindnesses into our state to help the hurting babies – you sent thousands of dollars worth of baby supplies to Alabama, and your prayers and well wishes meant the world to all of us.

And then there are other stories. Stories of amazing people coming from amazing distances to do amazing things. Thanks to one of my South Carolina readers, Lindsay (that I got the opportunity to meet yesterday – hi Lindsay!), I was able to interview one of these people a couple of months ago. I wrote her story on Alabama Bloggers in February, but I decided to share it here, today – as a reminder. A reminder that although the destruction was great, the love that has come out of it has been greater.


Shortly after the April 27th tornadoes, I visited Pleasant Grove.

Although I went to half a dozen destroyed towns, Pleasant Grove was one of the most painful. I knew what it was supposed to look like, as I had spent many days of my childhood visiting friends who lived there.

And also, there was this house.

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I broke down when I found it.

I had barely removed the blue bow from my own mailbox when the tornadoes hit. Had the storm moved a little more in another direction, this house could have just as easily been mine.

I never found out if that baby was okay, but I think about him often, as I thank God for the opportunity to look into my own baby boy’s blue eyes.

For the first time since that original visit, I returned to Pleasant Grove this past Friday. As I entered the city, the determination to rebuild their community was immediately evident. Both in tornado damaged and non-damaged areas, construction was everywhere. New neighborhoods, new houses, new everything.

Their commitment to stay in their community was so admirable, despite the wide open spaces all around them.

Brand new houses would be alone on a block, with cleared fields on one side and house ruins on the other.

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With most of the ruins cleared, it wasn’t nearly as evident as to what had happened to this community.

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In some areas, the new construction was so widespread that if it weren’t for the telltale eerie trees, one who didn’t know might just think it was a brand new development.

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My visit to Pleasant Grove was for the opportunity to meet Sara Newton and Jim Mosley.

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Sara and Jim almost certainly would have never crossed paths if it weren’t for the April 27 tornadoes. Sara is an architect who lives in Clemson, South Carolina, and Jim is a retired steel mill worker in Pleasant Grove, Alabama.

After the tornadoes hit, Sara and her father, Steve Sanders, wanted to find someone that their church service group, the Clemson Pres Doers, could bless.

And when I say “bless”, I mean “build a new house”.

Yeah – wow.

Their motto, Go Big With God, is certainly fitting.

They did some research and found a list of people who needed houses. Jim was on the top of the list.

So they met with him, committed to the project, raised all of their own funds, and built Jim a house.

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Isn’t it beautiful?

Jim’s original house was next to where the new one is, but very little was left. He was at home during the storm, and managed to secure himself in the doorframe. He later had to be dug out of the rubble.

Jim told me that when he was going through a stack of papers that hadn’t been blown away, he found a house plan that his mother had saved – it had been her dream home. He gave the plan to Sara, they tweaked it slightly for Jim’s needs, and he now has his mother’s dream home.

Jim got his certificate of occupancy on Friday, and plans to move in later this week.

For this building project, the Clemson Pres Doers raised over $90,000, and only lack $4,000 to finish paying for all of their expenses. They have also brought groups of volunteers from South Carolina throughout the whole process, giving their church members had the option of serving or giving (or both) to complete Jim’s house.

I was astonished at their generosity, commitment, and desire to love their fellow man in such a practical way.

Not all of Jim’s neighbors have been so blessed, yet. As you look out of Jim’s window, there is still much to be done.

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I asked Jim what made him stay in Pleasant Grove.

“It never was an option for me to leave. My family has been in Pleasant Grove for over 100 years – it’s home, that’s it.”

Jim has been living with his Aunt and Uncle a couple of miles away during this construction process, and is thrilled to be moving into his beautiful new home.

When I asked him if I could get his and Sara’s picture, Jim beamed. Then he said “Wait!!”, and pulled off his jacket.

“I never thought this Bama Boy would wear a Clemson shirt, but I sure will now!!”

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After all, being willing to wear another team’s colors is the highest form of gratitude around here.


Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to everyone, everywhere, who has loved on our state in the past year. We have felt it, and we have been able to continue on because of it.