“You are not going out with that boy unless his parents are driving and that's that. I'm not just Spitting Grits here, young lady!”

. . . My father, John Thomas Cravey, USAF, to me in 1956.

Ear Popping and Hair Raising in the Operating Room

What do you do if you’re in the operating room, May 22 at 5:41, working on a patient at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Missouri, when an F4 tornado hits your town?

St. John's

A view of the devastated interior of St. John’s Regional Medical Center, Joplin, MO. More pictures here.

This seems like a stupidly outrageous question. It probably wouldn’t even work as fiction, let alone reality. Except, it happened, an event that answers the outrageous question. Of all the incredible tornado stories to come out of the month-long super tornadoes outbreak, this story stands out, even in the large field of stories of heroism and amazing survival.

As a resident of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which suffered an almost identical day a month ago, April 27, this story is hair-raising and made more so by the fact this all happened to a close friend’s son.

Dr. Dusty Smith, son of Dr. Jay Smith, a dermatologist in Montgomery, Alabama, is an orthopedic surgeon in Joplin. That infamous day, Dusty was performing emergency surgery when St. John’s took a direct hit moments after a staff member said, “My ears are popping.”

Here’s the rest of the story.

This amazing story has lots of facets, some obvious, some less so. But it reminds me the heroic effort that airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger made in landing his disabled U.S. Airways airliner into the Hudson River in New York, saving every one of the crew and passengers. A modest man, he credits his experience and training in keeping his cool under such pressure.

Dusty has a few words about the value of good training.

If I could tell the residents of Joplin one thing, it would be that driving through all the devastation even a month later is very hard, very anxiety-ridden, even depressing. I think it will be like this for a long, long time

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Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Shocking Vistas

So, what’s next for our city ravaged by the April 27, 2011, Mutant Tornado.

That’s easy: Disaster relief, disaster relief, disaster relief.

Once the National Guard began to open up the hardest hit areas of the city, I went to sites to shoot video; I wasn’t sure why at the time. Now I think it was for two reasons: catharsis and the need to appeal – for some time to come – for disaster relief.

I interviewed several survivors along Crescent Ridge Road and Holt, arguably the hardest hit. Until I went to shoot video, and even though I had been using that road for decades, I had no idea the reason for the name of the road. Almost immediately, the question was answered. Once the Mutant Tornado went through and took almost everything, shocking vistas opened up.

I was standing on a ridge. From that ridge I could see for miles and miles, southwest over devastated Alberta City toward town until the hospital and football stadium finally blocked the view; and northeast all the way over Brookwood to Jim Walter Mine #7, according to one survivor, 35 miles away, until the next ridge blocked the view.

Christmas Future

Tuscaloosa will need all the help it can get for the long haul. The amount of debris, closely equivalent to the amount of debris left at the site of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist attack, tells the story. (See the previous post.)

The 5,000 – 7,000 damaged or destroyed structures in the city tell the story. Many, many people are in dire need of the most fundamental supplies – food, shelter, clothes, school supplies, children’s toys, hygiene products – name it.

This need for the most basic supplies will continue well into the future. The clean-up is likely to take a year. Who knows how and when structures and housing will be rebuilt.

Too soon the need will be for Christmas presents for Tuscaloosa’s displaced children.

The Odor

Finally, it was the odor, the stench, on the ridge that drove home to me the extent of the devastation. As far as I know, by the time I shot video (about five days after the tornado), all the human bodies had been found and retrieved, but there could easily have been remains of people whom no one knew to report as missing. The odor was certainly the animals and pets that were killed and covered up by debris.

It was not rotting food. Rotting food alone (which I admit I’ve had in my refrigerator from time to time) does not smell like that. It was bodies.

Hints

When I turned onto Crescent Ridge, the scene only hinted at what was to come: broken tree limbs, trees with too few leaves, entire oak trees that have been sawed and piled on the side of the road, twisted road signs, mail boxes in yards, homes with odd lettering and numbering spray-painted on the front, huge root balls of trees sucked up from the ground. Then damaged structures and blue tarps.

Survivors tell their stories about the April 27, 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado

Then the shocking vistas where people and their lives had been. Then some survivors -- the few who were able to stay in their damaged homes or a small number of people standing dazed on what used to be their property.

Then I met one man, who pointed out Jim Walter Mine #7 in the far distance, some family members, and a mother dog with about five puppies; they are living under an open-type tent and in his storm shelter, about 12-feet below ground, which saved their lives. There was nothing left on the cement slab that was his front porch, living room, and house. They were cooking on a grill.

For some distance, there was a strange stillness up there, broken only by birds’ chirpings and songs. Then As I neared the area of a direct hit, I began to hear all the heavy equipment working to bulldoze or pick up debris into piles of like materials. Cars and trucks, drain gutters, bikes and other metal stuff in a pile. Tires and man-made materials in piles. Pieces of wood and housing materials in a pile. Huge tree trunks and large branches in a pile. Root balls in a pile. Unidentifiable stuff in piles. Ice cream and popsicle trucks. Toys. What was left of swimming pools, filled with trees and belongings. Lone cement stair steps leading to nothing.

I saw this for miles until the scene became countryside with an odd wide path cut out where whole forests had been standing five days before.

Finally the remains of my favorite gardening nursery. And then Holt Elementary School. All gone.

Disaster Relief

Tuscaloosa will need all the help it can get for the long haul. And frankly, the best, most needed, donation is good ole MONEY. Following are some agencies, churches, and places where donations and money can be made, and there are many more besides these.

Agencies and Organizations

The United Way of West Alabama disaster donations

The Salvation Army of Tuscaloosa, and here, disaster relief; 1-800-SAL-ARMY

The Red Cross of Tuscaloosa, Disaster Online Newsroom; 1-800-REDCROSS

Tuscaloosa Disaster Relief Fund

Tuscaloosa Emergency Services, 205-758-5535

Samaritan’s Purse

West Alabama Chamber Foundation, which you can donate to through Joe Namath’s “Broadway Joe” site.

Aid for Tuscaloosa’s three elementary schools destroyed by the tornado

Catholic Social Services Tuscaloosa, 205-759-0168

Churches

St. Mark United Methodist Church, 2605 Skyland Blvd. E., 205-553-4929

Hargrove Road Memorial United Methodist Church, 1812 Hargrove Rd. E., 205-553-7271

Woodland Forrest Baptist Church, 6701 Hargrove Rd. E., 205-553-1494

Church of the Nazarene, Hillcrest, 340 Patriot Pkwy., 205-758-3297

I will post these disaster relief agencies and sites on and off on Spittin’ Grits for months to come. It’s what I can do for my city.

Tornado Morphing

Tornadoes don’t have names, as Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Pacific hurricanes do. April 27, 2011, probably explains why: There aren’t enough names, and names are too nice for tornadoes of that magnitude. That day, in Alabama alone, at least 38 twisters ripped up more than 1,000 miles of cities, towns, and countryside, killing nearly 240 people and countless animals; injuries are in the thousands. The state isn’t even 1,000 miles long.

But I have a name for the monster that devastated Tuscaloosa – Mutant.

Images of the mutant thing abound. Just search “Tuscaloosa tornado.”

Even from its inception southwest of the Tuscaloosa city limits, it was almost a mile wide; it had tentacles; it swallowed another twister or two to enlarge itself. Structures and things in its path that should have impacted its momentum seemed to feed it. It was a singular presence, without the usual rain wall or extended blackness to disguise it. The countryside forests and woods, the cityscape, the green spaces – none of these hid it from view. It just kept coming and coming and coming. Television meteorologists lost their composure and were all but screaming for everyone to take cover.

The world saw the images of the Mutant’s destruction for days afterwards. President Obama, as well as some entertainers, came in person. Obama’s shock was visible. “I’ve got to say, I've never seen destruction like this,” he said.

The Mutant directly and significantly affected about a quarter of the city’s residents. It destroyed or severely damaged at least 5,000 buildings in the city. Ironically, it destroyed Tuscaloosa’s Emergency Operations Center, as well as the Salvation Army building, Red Cross building, police station and fire station buildings and vehicles, the city’s garbage trucks, a water treatment operation, several schools, and on and on and on. The clean-up will likely cost more than $100 million.

The emotional toll is not countable.

Normal Destruction

All this is simply numbers. Here’s another: It has created somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million cubic yards of debris.

Who, other than experts, knew that debris is measured in cubic yards or in tons? Ordinarily, who cares? Certainly not me. So I tried to get some perspective on this kind of meaningless number.

First, our Tax Day Tornado less than two weeks earlier, which I reported in the April 20 post, created about 15,000 cubic yards of debris. That one was sort of a normal tornado, so that otherwise meaningless number may be kind of “normal” for tornadoes. Frankly, those numbers still didn’t really mean anything.

So I tried to find out how many cubic yards of debris were created from the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and from hurricane Katrina 2005. What I found was likely “ballpark” figures, as totals were different in different sources.

Mutant Destruction

Many of us remember the images. From those memories, we can make meaningless numbers more real.

One report: “Even though it was a terrible site, the P&J team didn’t feel the effort would be insurmountable. They estimated that Ground Zero looked to have about a million cubic yards of debris; we had handled four times that much following Hurricane Andrew.”

Another: “By comparison, the disaster debris generated after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City was approximately 1.4 million tons (2.8 million CY).”

Finally: “He cut short critics of the slow hurricane relief effort by offering statistics on the magnitude of the disaster. While the destruction of the World Trade Center created 1 million cubic yards of debris in New York, he said, hurricanes Katrina and Rita created 45 million cubic yards of debris in Mississippi alone.”

These numbers tell us that the Tuscaloosa debris is comparable to the debris from the destroyed World Trade Center. Discovering this was shocking.

For several reasons, I spent time, after the National Guard opened the worst affected areas, shooting video, some of which I will edit and put on YouTube. What I saw and what survivors told me was emotionally draining. I will deal with their stories in upcoming posts.

Suffice it to say right now that the Mutant did one more thing besides destroying and killing: it created new and shocking vistas. All that debris used to be something; it’s now gone, leaving huge open spaces where people, pets, trees, gardens, vehicles, swimming pools, and ordinary life used to be.

 

How It Becomes Personal

We see and can get glued to the ravages of a disaster. The images are often horrendous. Sometimes we’re thankful, even relieved, when another news story replaces the disaster.

But here’s how a major disaster becomes all too personal:

As the monster tornado entered the city, my husband and I were watching James Spann at ABC 33-40 in Birmingham who was showing it on the tower cam. It was so huge that Spann lost his composure. Then we grabbed our dog Maggie and dove into our laundry room in the center of our house.

Later that evening I got a text from a young woman who helps me with Joanna Leigh on weekends. She was on the balcony of the Links apartment complex in south Tuscaloosa, only a short distance from where the tornado entered the city limits. She took this photo, then ran for the bathroom.

clip_image002

The photographer later understood how dangerous it could have been.

Early Thursday morning, when I knew there had been massive damage in the city but knew little else, my son, who had been watching the news from Texas and keeping us informed, called extremely upset. He had just learned that a friend of his whom he had played football with at The University of Alabama had found out about 1 a.m. that his daughter had been killed by the tornado. I think I must have caved. I packed up Joanna Leigh and myself and left for Montgomery where I had family and friends. I knew I’d be able to get gas on the way out.

While I was there, a friend sent me a picture of the entrance to Windsor Drive.

I lived for 25 years on Windsor Drive in the Alberta City area of Tuscaloosa. Alberta City was where President Obama walked to see the damage up close, and it was so ravaged by the April 27 tornado that I could not recognize where in Alberta City he walked. Even a week later we are still disallowed to enter that area.

Those who have never seen Windsor Drive might not know from the picture how extensive the damage is, but the picture bears no resemblance to the neighborhood entrance I knew so well. The picture (below) was the first indication of how hard it would be to come home and see the damage with my eyes.

clip_image004

The entrance to Windsor Drive in Tuscaloosa

I then got an e-mail from a student friend of mine with a link to a video he had put together of what remained of his condo. I have had dinner at that condo. He was in a basement at a friend’s house, but his brother was on the condo’s kitchen floor with a metal pot on his head when it went over and sucked out nearly everything.

Then my first cousin called his mother (my aunt) in Montgomery; I was sitting there and he recounted his encounter with the tornado. I will post his account later, with unpublished pictures.

At some point I knew I had to return home and face what had happened.

Tuscaloosa is a small city of fewer than 100,000. Nothing that the tornado hit is far enough away from anyone to allow for distancing themselves from the damage. We will all have to drive through it for years to come.

And driving through some of it was the big step I had to take. I took video. Yet I know it is only a small bit of what is out there to have to see soon. The city is slowly opening up closed areas like Alberta City.

The day I shot video, May 3, was unseasonably cold and rainy, like a December day. The video footage I put together is on streets I drive to get anywhere, including picking up Joanna Leigh from her school. I will see it over and over and over.

On the radio in the background is WTXT, programming converted to call-ins telling what they need or volunteers telling what they have available and where. “You’re on the phone. How can we help you?” said the announcers over and over.

One woman from the decimated Cedar Crest area was expressing her gratitude for all the help. She then said that her cat, Peanut Butter, was still missing and that she believed she would find her. She asked that people let her know if they sighted a tortoise-shell cat with a brown blob on its head that looked like peanut butter.

The first half of the video shows the intersection of two main arteries serving the city: 15th Street (east-west) and McFarland Boulevard, Highway 82, (north-south); I was driving north on McFarland and then back. Cozy landmarks, like Hobby Lobby, Big Lots, Tide Clean, Krispy Kreme, and many, many others are debris that will be loaded on dump trucks.

The second half is the route home from Joanna Leigh’s school, and you can hear her voice in the background: from 15th Street (west of the main intersection) and turning south onto Hackberry/Hargrove Road, then making my way back to 15th Street to turn east and go home.

On the Hargrove Road segment, you see Wood Manor, where my friend Nathan’s condo was; a little way up, you can look northeast and see the hospital several miles away, something I never imagined. There’s nothing to block the view now.

Video shot May 3, 2011

Emotional recovery will take a lot longer than the other kinds.

If there is any doubt what kind of monster could have done this damage, watch Mike Wilhelm’s raw footage on YouTube or here:

 

Notice the monster’s tentacles reaching out and down.

Facing It

Right now, on May 2 in Alabama, it is 50 degrees and expected to fall into the low 40s. The strange temperature will likely break records for May 2-3. And thousands are without power, homeless, in damaged houses, in shelters, with no warm clothes.

I knew I had to face it, the devastation. I had to go to the pharmacy across the river, as my regular one in the Alberta City area of Tuscaloosa is inaccessible. Then I had to pick up Joanna Leigh at her school, very near the football stadium on The University of Alabama campus.

I took my video camera. I thought that trying to take video might distract me from the awful sight I knew I would see. I hope to post the video tomorrow or the next day.

When I rounded the curve on Hargrove Road heading east, I looked toward my friend Nathan’s condo. It was gone. I wanted to throw up.

From Hargrove road, I could see the hospital. That should have been impossible, against the laws of physics or something, but there it was, with nothing to block the view.

Tomorrow will be one week since the horrendous tornado that has torn our town into this disaster area. In places it looks like Lebanon looked at its low point.

And it will go down to 43 degrees tonight. In May, in Alabama. That’s supposed to be nearly impossible, too.

At home

Came home from Montgomery. Water may be usable; trying to confirm.

Future posts will include my cousin's FIRST- HAND account and his pictures.

I still have one huge step to take: to see this devastation with my eyes. I expect it will be hard.

More when possible.


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Location:Tuscaloosa

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