Everyone asks what it sounds like. It does and does not sound like a freight train; it rumbles, but the high notes of the rails are missing, the click and clatter and screech. It does and does not sound like a jet engine, though it shrieks with spin and momentum.
What a tornado sounds like is this: the tumbling of a breeze deep inside the chamber of the ear. It is precisely that register, with exactly that variation of pitch and tone, but multiplied exponentially to something that cannot quite be reproduced, a roar that keeps on thrumming inside the veins long after the clouds have cleared.
Depending on your location, the tornado carries additional notes. Shattering glass, wood vibrating, a kind of painful ripping, like burnt skin being peeled. Hailstones and pea gravel and then timber and shingle and bricks and dogs and the scouring of earth, the actual grass being pulled blade by blade.
I heard it come and heard it go. The sound, immediately recognizable as itself, the sound of gravity moving forward, the whole sky condensed and bearing down. The sound, louder and deeper and louder. Things hitting the house. The oak falling just feet from my bathroom shelter, a different sound, like an atom splitting. Things hitting the house and water coming in. And then the sound, not diminished, but farther away. Farther. And gone.
Two days later, I turned my head into a fresh breeze under a blue sky, and there it was again: the sound. Precisely.
On the day of the storm I was at home with a case of mono. I was emailing friends about the weather predictions, resting on the couch. At noon I drove to Taco Casa on 15th Street, a local landmark that would be badly damaged five hours later. I ordered a combo and southern iced tea so sweet it made my teeth ache. After, I stopped in the parking lot and looked up at the sky; the light gray clouds looked low and tumbled and wet, and there was a strong wind blowing.
The mono made it hard to stay upright. On the day of the storm, I was propping myself up by my elbows as I typed. A day later, the mono was gone, jolted out of my system by adrenaline and shock and necessity.
On the one-week anniversary of the storm, my family called from Colorado and California and Indiana to check in. They had seen it on TV, live coverage as the funnel moved diagonally across the city. The classic pattern, southwest to northeast. They had seen the debris ball on radar. My sister said she knew it was hitting my house. She said it would have been a poetic way to die.
On the two-week anniversary, my brother called to warn me that the glory of victimhood wears off quickly. That soon, people would go back to their own lives. The volunteers would disappear. The media would move on. He said that I would feel abandoned. Then I never heard from him again.
Two months after the tornado, after days of blue skies and dry weather everywhere I went on a trip out west, and I found myself in Wichita. The sky was black. My hands were white on the steering wheel. I drove south, out of the path of the storm, at first through sheets of rain and then a dust storm, and then a clear windy road ahead of me, but I kept going fast, my head low. On the opposite side of the freeway, heading toward the storm: the Discovery Channel storm chasers. The red Dominator, built low and armored, designed to intercept a weak tornado. Their entourage of medics and cameras and food and Dopplers. Everyone going fast, the storm chasers north into darkness, me heading south toward light.
I think of the time between the storm and today as a kind of not-time. There are many days I do not remember, though I know I spent them on reconstruction tasks, or reading books, or playing Angry Birds. I know that in the intervening months, I have seen my roof and rooms take shape again. I have driven over three thousand miles, out to Colorado and back, and to Rome, Georgia, and many miles in town, and from my rental house to my real house. But I don’t feel the passage of time, and it is a little like being dead.
If someone asked me how long ago the tornado hit, I would be tempted to say: last week. That is how present and immediate it feels. A million yards of debris have been cleared away, and grass now grows over lots where businesses and homes once stood, but to me everything is still raw. There are mounds of twisted trees inside my head. I can’t be the only one who feels this.
Now there are things I hear too acutely. I miss what is said in conversation, but startle at the clatter of silverware on a table. Bird song seems amplified and almost painful to the ear. And beside me, the dryer finishing its cycle, but distorted, as if twisted around an obstacle on its way to the eardrum.
The doctor tested my ears twice. He noted that the tornado came during allergy season and said perhaps I am merely congested. I suspect he believes I simply do not want to hear what people are saying to me. He may be right.
But there are other things I do not want to hear now. Chainsaws and sirens, of course, but also the way a needle spray sounds against a plastic shower curtain.
And other people do not want to hear things. At the football stadium, when two fighter jets flew overhead in celebration, seven people collapsed in fear.
I made daily trips to the tornado house to remove things that were precious, to gather clothes I would need for summer. And back again to pull clothes I might need if repairs dragged on and the fall turned cold. I met the insurance adjuster there, and he spent two hours crawling around the house, making notes. Locals with chainsaws wanted to remove the oak tree that had impaled the north end of the house; again and again I refused, waiting for the professionals I had hired to arrive with special equipment.
I met a second insurance adjuster in my courtyard. We sat at a wrought iron table. We made a list of missing and damaged property: dog house, mattresses, hose reels, suitcases, bedspreads, cosmetics. His sunglasses reminded me of my brother, a former Marine. It was a sunny afternoon.
In some parts of town they were clearing bodies out of collapsed houses. The fraternities cooked hot meals for first responders and victims; cadets tacked blue tarps on roofs. Power crews from Michigan appeared almost overnight. Ordinary people brought sodas, ham sandwiches, wipes. The chainsaws never stopped.
It was two weeks before I could drive through the tornado zone. The enormous piles of debris. Cars crushed and crumpled. The vast empty sky, the bright sun. The lake, dull with dead things. McDonald’s, gone. Acker Appliances, Full Moon BBQ, Krispy Kreme, the gas station, the frame shop. Buildings vanished or collapsed inward, or sideways. A few still stood, swallowed by the debris as it mounded higher and higher. Cranes and bulldozers and high-loaders moved through the area, slow and deliberate. Shifting things, sorting, clearing paths.
In summer, a haze hovered over the demolition area. I saw it as I drove down 15th Street, a mist rising like dead souls, a mix of insulation fiber and pulverized concrete and dust and humidity. It was ominous, a contaminated fog, like a visible moaning.
Less than two weeks before the storm, I hosted interns from work at my house, a pot-luck dinner to celebrate a successful year. Shortly before they were to arrive, the sirens sounded and interns called to see what they should do. I said: if you are already out and about, come here—you will be safer in the house than on the road. Some were held in classrooms or stairwells; others showed up at my door. We watched the storms sweep through, one after another. Small hail bounced on the grass before the heavy rains began. More interns arrived and another warning sounded. The wind got stronger and we watched the television coverage and ate and watched the rain. Still another warning and indeed there was a small tornado on the east side of town and the day got darker and night fell. The storm system passed and we were safe inside the house. That was twelve days before a substantial portion of the town simply disappeared.
I heard that the tornado picked up an entire fire truck with its crew and deposited it in the Black Warrior River. I heard there were dozens of unidentified bodies, uncounted because unnamed, stored away at the Veterans Hospital. That a body fell out of the sky in Birmingham, fifty miles away.
I heard that the smell of the tornado zone was unbearable.
I am ashamed to admit that I resent the town of Joplin for their tornado, a 5 to our 4. Their wind speed 200 mph to our 190, their slabs scoured a bit cleaner. Their massive and dramatic death toll. Their devastated neighborhoods, unrecognizable. I resent how the media abandoned us. How Joplin became the signifier of disaster. I remember Joplin as a green and pleasant town. The country club there, where I first had a club sandwich, then believed for years that such stacks of turkey and bacon could only be found next to a golf course.
In Tuscaloosa, we knew that April 27th, the date of our tornado, was a Particularly Dangerous Situation. Power was out across the river, from straight-line winds before dawn. The schools cancelled classes for the day. Some of us watched the mid-day coverage of tornados in Cullman, a small town north of Birmingham. The National Weather Service called the mayor to give him the odds of a major tornado in his town. The wind was warm and wet all day.
Joplin was caught unawares. Buildings fell down around people and they got sucked up out of their cars. It was an awful day in Joplin. Just like here.
I tell people that I felt the hand of God that day. Long before the funnel formed, when the storm cell was near the Mississippi border, I looked at the radar and knew: that is going to hit Tuscaloosa. I knew it was going to hit me, and I knew I wasn’t going to die.
I examined the options: the closet in the master bedroom, the master bathroom, the hallway. I chose the only room without windows, a tiny guest bathroom on the north end of the house. I set a bottle of water on the ledge. I wore blue jeans and strong sandals, put my car keys and wallet in my pocket. I found my passport and birth certificate and put them in a leather bag. I put a quilt on the floor beside the tub. I locked the cats in the center bedroom with their litter box.
When the storm cell got closer, I took the laptop and set it on the toilet, the TV coverage streaming live. I put the harness and leash on the dog and took her into the bathroom and closed the door. I got into the tub. The dog refused to get in. I watched the coverage: the funnel forming outside of town, widening and strengthening. I watched the tornado as it approached my house, and I could hear it. I drew the dog close and put the quilt over us. I held the dog and listened.
I did not scream. I did not pray. It did not occur to me that I would die, or even be hurt. I knew it was going to hit, and it did. I was just waiting for it to pass.