Over the last seven days, I have felt—along with sadness for those who were lost, or who lost everything— a few overwhelming emotions.
I am glad to be alive.
I am glad that my mother, who is nearly 90 years old, is still alive.
The little duplex where I live in Wahouma— a humble enclave between Woodlawn and East Lake—is still standing.
Life itself and the things that make it worth enduring seem precious to me, not things to be taken for granted, but things that can be snatched away with horrifying suddenness.
As I left the offices of the Weekly last Wednesday at about 6 p.m. to go home, I got a text from my friend Matt Hooper. “There’s a badass tornado headed right for East Lake,” he said. “Hunker down, man!”
The storm did not plow through East Lake, of course. It went north and east. And we, my mother and I, were spared. But the storm could easily have destroyed everything I’ve ever known and loved.
The true meaning of the event came to me last Saturday, April 30, on a cool, sunny afternoon. The birds were singing, the neighborhood kids laughing and playing. I went into my kitchen, feeling a breeze blow through my open back door.
I looked in my freezer at some popsicles and a couple of chicken pot pies and thought about what I would fix to eat for me and Lisa.
As I put my hand on a pot pie, it hit me.
I understood suddenly that there is no difference, none at all, between me and the people who died or lost their homes, the people who couldn’t go to their fridges that day and pick out something to eat.
I’m not a “good person.” I’m not special. I’m not being “saved” for anything. And the people who died, or the vast majority of them, didn’t do anything wrong. If that storm had come down my street, my mother and I would be dead.
This all makes me realize how much I really want to live.
The storm teaches another lesson—the awesome, transcendent power of nature. This became clear to me when Weekly editor Sam George and I visited Tuscaloosa and Pratt City.
In Tuscaloosa, we walked in a warm sun along a huge section of 15th Street near McFarland Blvd. that has been all but obliterated. It was difficult for me to even recognize the place, even though I lived in Tuscaloosa off and on for 14 years.
We saw Forest Lake on our right, the large trees along the shore snapped like toothpicks and sticking up like broken teeth.
In the midst of this destruction we found scores of volunteers, many from other parts of the state, who were bringing in supplies or serving food. I met two young women, named Kelley and Dallas, from a Pentacostal church in Bibb County. They had never seen anything like the damage on 15th Street. Kelley said, “I can’t imagine being here when it happened.” Dallas said, “It’s horrible. I cried when I first saw it.”
In Pratt City, Sam and I parked the car as a cold rain begin to fall from low, black clouds. We trudged up the hill on Sheridan Road and walked down a street in the South Hampton subdivision. There were houses demolished by the storm. There were other houses that were severely damaged, some bearing red tags from the city marking them unfit for habitation. The entire neighborhood had been all but wiped from the earth.
In surveying the damage, I knew there was no way for me to grasp, to feel, what it must have been like to huddle in a closet while one of the biggest tornadoes in history roared right overhead.“Ten thousand horses came over my house and they were chasing a freight train,” one woman told The Birmingham News. “All I could do was scream, ‘Jesus, keep us wrapped in your blood.’”
I can’t imagine the terror, the physical agony, endured by the victims. As we trudged through the rain, as I looked at the bits of clothing and other possessions blown into some bushes and upturned tree roots, I went into reporter mode and blocked out the horror. But I knew that we were walking on sacred ground.
And again, as on 15th Street in Tuscaloosa, there was a grace note. Five volunteers from the Faith Chapel Christian Center in Wylam operated a relief stand a few blocks away. They wore yellow rain coats and huddled under the tent, giving away food, water and toiletries.
Volunteer Linda Harris attempted to describe the destruction she saw in Pratt City. “It’s horrible,” She said. “Along Cherry Avenue, it’s like a bomb exploded.”
It seems to me that this horrible power of destruction that nature possesses serves a purpose. It puts us in our place. It makes us feel small. We understand how little control we have over anything.
Does that mean, in turn, that we are powerless? No, but it means that you must act with purpose and conviction. That you must live now. That you must treasure every moment. Life is not your possession. It is a privilege, not a right. It is something you must use for a greater good, whatever that may be.
For the last week, I have felt—along with the grief—an odd sense of exhilaration. I want the rest of my life to count for something.
I want to help tell the stories of the people I’ve met—the survivors, the volunteers, the first responders.
And I want to contribute, in some small way, to Alabama’s recovery.
As I stood under the tent in Pratt City, the rain falling harder, I asked the Faith Chapel volunteers if anything good might come out of something so horrible. Sonjanetta Houston discussed the way that different churches, even those representing different races, are working together in the relief effort. “So I think that has been one of the pluses that have come out of this disaster, that people are working together of all races,” she said.
One can hope that the people of Alabama— black, white, red, brown and yellow—will hang onto this mood, that they will love each other, work together, be proud of each other, that they will show the nation and the world that Alabama can be a great place and that all of our talk about faith and family and community is not just rhetoric, but the result of deep conviction.
Maybe this spirit can even live on beyond the recovery and be applied to some of our other problems in this state.
Alabama is bruised and bleeding, but we will rebuild. I love Alabama. I am proud of Alabama.