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AskTog, Veteran's day, November 11, 2002


   It’s 1:48 am CST as I write this. We are operating on auxiliary power. Our main sources of illumination are the occasional flashes of lighting which momentarily freeze the steady rain.

The National Weather Service has just lifted the tornado warning for Cherokee County, Alabama. Two hours ago, at around 11:30 pm, a tornado touched down less than a mile from us in a shower of lightning, cutting a swath of destruction across this small community. My wife, the doctor, and I were on-scene within minutes, where she joined the paramedics looking for victims.

We arrived here in our motorhome just two days ago to visit Julie’s parents. We’d decided against the RV park where we’d stayed last year when we found only one other person in residence. Instead, we opted for a fish camp down by the lake, still going strong even this late in the season. It was there we all huddled in the concrete-block laundromat while the storm passed overhead, with lightning so continuous, the ground was lit up like high noon.

What we didn't know then was that there was a tornado passing directly above us, one that had touched down just a few miles away, then lifted up for a few moments before dropping down again. We found out the danger we'd been in a couple minutes later when the radio reported the tornado had touched down once more less than one minute later and less than one mile away. As soon as she heard the report, Julie said, “we’re going,” and we were in the car, pointed toward the destruction.

Buildings everywhere lay in ruins. Roofs had been shredded, exterior walls torn away, revealing jumbled rooms like so many dioramas of personal lives, inviting all to see. Tree trunks stuck up like snags and 12 foot sections of metal roofing were wrapped around limbs, fence posts, and road signs, hundreds of yards from the houses they once protected. The few remaining bushes were gaily decorated with fluffy balls of pink insulation, and thumb-thick power lines serpentined among the fallen trees like garlands.

A quarter mile section of the highway lay beneath downed limbs and entire trees. The two halves of the community were totally separated, but this condition would last less than two hours, as rescue workers poured in from everywhere. Professional firefighters worked arm in arm with volunteer firemen, farmers, construction workers, and tradesmen. Above the continuo of thunder, the angry buzzing of 20 or 30 chain saws marked the passage of this army of workers, as they, along with men driving farm tractors, slashed and scraped their way from both ends of the sudden, sodden forest.

It felt good to be part of this community of caring people as we all pitched in to help with the rescue effort. In the over-civilization of our crowded cities, private citizens have few opportunities to help their neighbors. Professionals take care of such things, and anyone showing up without proper credentials is quickly turned away, assumed to be trouble-makers or thieves. Here, I was assumed to be there to help, just like all the other fine citizens, and so I did. Not one fireman, not one policeman looked at me as anything other than a full partner. It was the kind of event that knits a community together, making people feel a part of, rather than apart from.

My warm feelings fell away when my wife crossed paths with me in the driving rain and let me know she had found someone dead, an elderly woman whose house simply disappeared around her, leaving her pinned beneath a huge main beam. Nothing else remained but an empty field littered with torn branches, along with her fallen walker bearing silent witness some thirty feet away.

We eventually pushed our way to the far side of the damage, where Julie and I faced a sobering sight. The place where we had originally planned to stay was destroyed. The lone trailer we would have parked beside--fortunately unoccupied at the time the tornado struck--had been snapped in half, thrown more than 100 feet, and crushed into kindling. The only place we could have sought shelter lay in ruins. Had we not decided to move to the fish camp, we would likely be dead.

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