Hit By The Tornado
The odds of being hit by a tornado, even in “Tornado Alley” are 1 in 4 million. Never tell me the odds.
My parents did an addition to our home in late 1978. The extension made their bedroom a little bigger and created a new exterior wall that was mostly glass with a vaulted ceiling. Work continued into the next year, and even as it was mostly done, it was driving my parents crazy that the workers simply wouldn’t do those last few items that would allow the project to complete and the city to sign off of the construction. My mom was particularly irked by mistakes the contractors had made in a number of places that were simply too expensive to fix, and the builders sorta threw up their hands.
Still, they moved furniture into the bedroom and I loved hanging out in there, as it jutted into the woods behind our home. It was particularly cool when it rained — I’d go stand in the new corner, between two windowed walls, like it was the prow of a ship — and lean my head against the glass to look down at the instant ponds forming below.
The sound of intense rain woke me before sunrise. The thunder was scary, it would rattle the glass, and I could see the lightning flashes through the curtains in my room. Getting out of bed, I drifted into my parent’s room to go stand in my corner. They weren’t in there. My dad, as was typical, was out of town at an ophthalmology conference. But I was surprised my mom wasn’t in bed at 6am. Maybe she was in the kitchen down the hall. The house was a sort of U-shape, with a hallway that connected one arm — my parents’ new extended bedroom — from the other arm, the living room and the rest of the house.
Standing in my corner listening to the rain cascade off the roof, I was getting nervous at the increasing intensity of the thunder and lightning. I knew to count seconds between those events to gauge distance, but standing there, the lighting and thunder were happening concurrently in a sort of persistent roar. The glass vibrated violently. As I began to step back, away from the windows, there was an explosion in front of me. It was as if the wall was there and then it was gone. I stood by their bed and realized I was outside somehow, I was getting wet. A 100 foot pine tree lay across the television set at the foot of their bed and the rain and thunder were on top of me. I was staring into the forest of our back yard.
Backing out of the room, I ran into my mom in the hallway.
“A tree is in the bedroom,” I said. Perhaps knowing I was prone to exaggeration, she accompanied me back into her room for me to show her the problem. The place where I had been standing a moment before was gone. The exercise bike was flattened. I think she muttered something like “Oh my” and we dashed to the other side of the house to get to a phone. The line still worked. As she dialed my dad I noticed the rest of the tree was in the living room. Our TV antenna that used to extend high above the roof was now twisted into a weird clump on the ground, and beyond it I could see all sorts of trees downed in the yard.
My mom spoke to my dad from the kitchen, with me sitting on the floor at her feet, still a little shaken up. Mom pulled the phone away from her mouth, “He wants you to take pictures.” Instantly I had purpose.
I ran back into my room and grabbed my camera and then ran out the back door into the wooded yard, oblivious to any ongoing danger. It was still pouring rain and thundering but I wanted to get photos of this from the outside. It was a mess, almost hard to see the house. I shot roll after roll as the storm moved on, and then I went into the street to see that it was littered with fallen trees and crushed cars. I walked around taking pictures as the sun rose; the storm was gone.
At noon a pair of trucks pulled up. It was our contractor and his team. They were hoping to finish up that day and then start on the immeasurable line up of customers who had been reaching out to them all morning. Some people weren’t going to get construction help for months. But here was our crew — on the day of the tornado walking through the house with jaws slack and clipboards out.
“So…” my mom began, “let’s try this again, and this time let’s see if we can’t get that ceiling beam right.” And just like that, the crew began clearing the debris and in a few days were back at work on the addition, version two.
The next day’s newspaper showed the path of the tornado through Gainesville; it cut a diagonal line through town, bouncing up and down, wiping out neighborhoods and then skipping a block and doing it again. When my high school resumed, classmates stood up and gave presentations about their various experiences of destruction. I recounted nearly being crushed by that tree, which I dramatized for effect. It was the first time I remember enjoying standing up and telling stories. I probably told the tornado story two dozen times that week.
I’m still a little PTSD in big storms, and I’d say I have a love/hate with trees.