Surviving Natural Disasters

The air seemed to hang heavy that Palm Sunday afternoon in March. Springtime in the south always carries a chance of storms, so it was not unrealistic that today may be one of those days. I had taken my son to the park that afternoon, but our visit was cut shorter than anticipated. I heard thunder off in the distance, but it was not the thunder that had me most uncomfortable. The ducks and geese at the pond were acting abnormally concerning. They seemed loud and irritated, and for some reason, almost uneasy. Since it was starting to thunder anyway, I decided to get back home. When we got back to the house, things continued to get stranger. My dogs were underneath the porch, whimpering. I had thought maybe a bear or some other dogs had been to the yard and perhaps they had been fighting. I had three dogs at the time, and could not get any one of them to come out from underneath the porch. After some time, I gave up trying to get them out and just went inside. I went about doing some house chores while my son played. I could not shake the uneasiness I was feeling toward how unusual all of the animals were acting during the day. I turned on the television and the every channel was abuzz with weather alerts. Reports of a tornado that touched down in Piedmont Alabama. I decided to keep the news on and monitor reports, being that they storms moving towards Georgia, and I was home alone with my son. The weather conditions deteriorated in my area and I could sense that it was going to get worse before the day was over. Within a few hours there were reports now coming in that a tornado had touched down on the southeast corner of my county, near where my parents lived. I called them to check on them, and they were okay, but had some damage around their area. My friend called me and wanted to come get me and my son to take us to her in-law’s home, where they had a basement. I agreed, as the news reports now continued to get more ominous and the threat was far from over. By the time my friend pulled into my driveway, I had already lost power, and there was debris flying around, both outside and inside my home. They used to teach you to raise your windows during a tornado threat, and I had done just that. There were pieces of paper and small objects lying about the house that were new blowing around in the rooms. It was a sickening feeling that we were too late to get across town to the basement. With having small children, we decided the only thing we could do now was take shelter the best we could. I had a hallway closet that housed the washer and dryer. So, we gathered pillows, blankets, and anything that we thought may act as a cushion to shield us, and we huddled in front of the washer and dryer in the hallway. The thunderous noise as the storm passed over us was nothing short of terrifying. There was a sound of popping that sounded like twenty gunshots. We kept our heads down and buried under the coverings as the noise of what was happening outside washed over us. It was like the sound when someone scrapes his or her nails over the chalkboard, you just cringe. Even though it seemed as if we were cowered there taking shelter forever, it was in actuality only a few minutes, and then silence fell upon us. It was much like when someone describes a deafening or deathly silence. We took a few minutes to collect ourselves and ensure everyone was safe and unharmed. We then got up from the hallway floor and started going about the house looking to see what had been left for us. Every window was covered completely with trees. There was very little daylight showing through, and we knew getting out of any window was not an option. There was so much damage on the back deck, that the rear door could not even be pried open. We were able to force the front door open just enough to see that there had been trees that came down and collapsed the roof of the front porch. We were blocked at every angle. Unsure about just how much damage may have been done to the roof or how many trees were on top of the house, we knew we had to find a way out. We made our way back through the house, looking at every option for an exit. We finally decided on the front door. We would have to crawl under the roof, over, and between a few trees. However, it was the only way out. The whole thing took a considerable amount of time; crawling and climbing with two toddlers. Eventually, we made it out. We made our way through a tangling of downed trees and found a clearing in the driveway. Taking a car was now not an option as they were underneath the downed trees. We proceeded to walk up my long and steep driveway in the torrential rain to try to get to my neighbors. Our greatest fear was that, since they were at the top of the hill, given the damage to my home down at the bottom, we would find their home leveled. Ironically, we found their home untouched. They were all safe. They took us in. After a little while, a group of neighbors from the street had made their way through cutting trees to clear out a path and check on everyone on the road. They were able to get us out, and took Deb and her son to her in-law’s home. I had them take me to my parents’ house. Several more storms ripped through my county that night; finally ending around ten o’clock. The following morning revealed substantial countywide damage and unfortunately, loss of life. I was grateful that we survived that day, but utterly heartbroken as my hometown laid in ruins.

The most impressive thing that I remember following that was the outpouring of support and love from my friends, family, and neighbors. There was a sense of community shown in my town, that I believe only can be understood after experiencing it firsthand. I have seen that since then, many times, from other towns and communities tornados or other forms of natural disaster have ravaged that. It is a sense of coming together and taking care of each other during a crisis. The resilience of people and communities are best displayed following these times. Much like following the terror attack on September 11, the displaying of patriotism and coming together as Americans, is very much like how these small towns come together for each other when disaster strikes their friends and neighbors. There is nothing more beautiful, nor endearing, as the resilience of the human spirit and sense of community displayed following a natural disaster. Not only is there a physical rebuilding taking place with the material things: building, homes, and churches, but there is a spiritual and personal rebuilding that resonates with the sense of community that are our family, friends, and neighbors.

Unfortunately, often times, there is an alter side to the resilience of those people following natural disasters. It is very common after experiencing a natural disaster to experience PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I, myself, was diagnosed with PTSD several years following the tornado. Trauma is trauma, and we all have a natural response to it, whether physically or psychologically. I worked with a therapist for a while who taught me how to manage my PTSD. She taught me about identifying my triggers (things that associate to the event), and ways of coping with those triggers. For the next few years, I became obsessed with weather related events, particularly tornado outbreaks. I would watch hours upon hours of The Weather Channel during sever weather events. Following those events, I would search on the internet everything I could possibly find regarding the damage, or if the town were within a reasonable driving distance, I would drive to the area and see the damage for myself; once the roads were opened up and the general population was allowed in the area. I felt, somehow, connected to those people in those towns. It was as though we were complete strangers, yet shared a very deep and personal bond. I felt as though no one else could wholly understand what I was going through, except for those people who had gone through the same thing.

Eventually, I wanted to find a way to give back to my community and help others who were facing disaster. I became an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) for my county, and volunteered with the fire department. Soon after I got into public service, I began studying everything I could learn about severe weather. I took the formal training and became a certified storm spotter. I wanted to understand weather, and how to be better prepared. I also wanted to share that knowledge with my own community, and help them be better prepared. I have since had experience with several tornados. Although, none to the extent of that first Palm Sunday storm. I have helped with search and rescue after a tornado touched down in my own town; I have helped cut trees from the roadway following another touchdown at a different time. In addition, I have been driving on the interstate when a tornado touched down and crossed the road on which I was driving. Thankfully, it was not a major tornado and while it was no less scary with the little to no visibility and debris hitting my car, it was not a strong enough storm to flip my car or cause me to hit any other cars on the roadway. Each of those times, I faced the storm with respect for the power of Mother Nature, as well as a newfound confidence in myself knowing that I understood so much more about tornado safety. Getting involved the way I did, and forcing myself to go back and face the terrifying thing that affected me so deeply, was the most impactful thing I could do to gain some control back over my own life.

I am no longer involved with the fire department, and I have let my EMT license expire. I have gone back to school and currently hold a job that has taken me down a different path. Regardless, I still hold tight to that sense of being a tornado survivor. I still monitor with vigor any threat for sever weather. I still have my storm spotter certification, and most of my coworkers and friends continually ask my opinion on how severe I think weather events may be. I can never fully step away from that connection I have with people impacted by natural disasters, and I now volunteer with the National Red Cross as a member of the Disaster Action Team. I will always feel that bond with natural disaster victims, and while I may just be another face in the crowd of people they look at through numb eyes who stepped in to help during a tumultuous time, I will know that I have been where they now are, and that I know, they too, are survivors. Even if they do not feel like it in that moment.

If you would like to learn more about surviving natural disasters, and how to prepare for disaster emergencies, Check out this incredible emergency preparedness guide

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