South Rises in Wake of Disaster

While gazing out my sliding glass door at the waving palm trees and purple evening sky, my best friend was holed up in an ancient brick building with the rest of her dorm as winds howled around them.

While I was considering whether or not I should wear shorts the next day, she was wondering when the mile-wide tornado overhead would stop and what the world outside would look like after it had.

On Wednesday, April 27, tornadoes tore through much of the south, hitting Tuscaloosa, Alabama with ferocity.

Throughout the entire month of April, the South has seen 280 confirmed tornadoes, 211 of which occurred on the 27th. As removed as a lot of us here in California are from the issue, I felt as though I was right in the middle of it, seeing it through the eyes of Emily.

That Wednesday, I was talking to Emily while she was on lockdown in her dorm room at Stillman College. I spoke to her again later that night, after the tornadoes had stopped, and she was shell-shocked. I was too busy worrying about homework and other stressors to focus on it.

When I turned on my laptop the next morning, pictures of the disaster were splashed across my homepage. Cars were reduced to twisted pieces of metal underneath more twisted pieces of metal that had once been buildings. A child stood on top of a pile of rubble looking out over their flattened neighborhood. This is what Emily was shell-shocked about while I was whining about schoolwork from about 2,000 miles away.

After seeing the pictures and understanding the severity of the disasters, I sent Emily a text to see how she was. She didn’t answer. So I sent her another. For the next couple of hours, I texted her with more and more urgency. What if she was one of the 340 people missing after the storm in Tuscaloosa alone?

There were thousands of people missing from all over the affected areas. People had been sucked up into the storm – one person was found in Birmingham, about 50 miles away from where they should have been safe and sound. The storms even sent part of a high school’s sign all the way to Georgia. Was Emily in Georgia too?

When she finally answered me, I was relieved. No, she was not in Georgia. Yes, her family and home were fine.

When I walked around campus that day, I couldn’t even imagine what Humanities Gateway would look like after a mile-wide tornado tore it to pieces. Even the swaying of the Arts Bridge was more unsettling than usual.

While I was sympathetically shell-shocked for Emily, she was out helping people. I told her to check in with me regularly so I would know that she was alive. When she did, she told me about volunteering at shelters and doing what she does best – talking to people. She was spending her time comforting every stranger she could.

The Friday after the storms, Emily went to her CVS to pick up her family’s various medications. While waiting in line, an old woman in front of her was begging the pharmacist to try calling their doctors just one more time.

As much as the pharmacist wanted to help her, they couldn’t place her insulin prescription because her pharmacy was out of commission and all their patient records had been destroyed. When the woman sulked away from the counter, Emily noticed she wasn’t wearing shoes. Again, she followed her hard-wired need to comfort and approached the woman.

By the end of the conversation, Emily knew the names of her family members and had given her a pair of shoes she had in a bag full of clothes that was headed to a homeless shelter.

The woman’s daughter and grandchildren had been trying to buy sunscreen while she was pleading with the pharmacist. They were homeless and had spent the day before poking through the rubble to salvage anything they could.  Sunscreen would at least protect them from burning while they continued to do that as long as they needed to. They left before Emily could convince them to let her buy the sunscreen for them.

As of May 4, the list of missing persons in Tuscaloosa has been reduced to 75, 126 miles of county roads have been cleared and reopened, yet about 900 households are still without power. These statistics do not account for the rest of the storm-ravaged south where countless others are missing and the death toll has exceeded 350 while rescue efforts are ongoing.

For a list of ways to help heal the South, visit =lp-the-south-s-tornado-victims.