Elephant on the Roof…or Storm in
By Beverly Hicks Burch
For years I was my family’s advanced warning system when it came to storms…in other words it took me a while to recover from the experience of Memorial Day Weekend 1973…the tornado that hit Center Point, AL. Years later we found out it had been an F3 tornado.
After Gomez and I married we lived in an apartment on the second floor. Any time a storm came up, I insisted we trek over to my parents and head to the basement. And, we did…sometimes we did, even with me in my pjs. After that, weather warning became more of a advanced science and TV stations began to beef up their weather forecasting…at least here in the South. They are “events” that interrupt “regularly scheduled programming”…with colorful radar and blow by blow details…and let me tell you, it has probably saved countless untold lives.
We learned six tornadoes had been seen in the state (AL) back on May 27, 1973. Later that evening little Brent, AL was just about wiped off the map. The tornado that hit south of Birmingham in Brent a few hours after the Center Point tornado had been stronger (F4) and took more lives. One church was demolished. My most favorite weatherman in the whole world, James Spann has a great link on his blog of the radar of the Brent tornado. The hook signature of a tornado is there as big as Dallas on the radar. The Centerville NOAA was even hit that day. I don’t think the radar was Doppler back then…
The following year, 1974, tornadoes hit Alabama hard again and almost obliterated the little town of Guin, AL into history. That was the night of a “super outbreak” in the nation. Guin is in northwest AL and folks up there to this day are still “marked” by that storm. I think every family that lived in the town lost someone or knew some who did.
Tall & Handsome found out how haunting the storm had been all these years on people on the area when we were living up that way. One day shortly after he started working in the area severe weather warnings were issued and most of the women in the site just stood up and walked out. It was a first time as an Operations Manager he had every seen anything like that…he was, ummm…gobsmacked…as the Brits say…
I had to explain some back history to him…the company had to explain metrics to the employees and they had to come to a happy meeting to accommodate safety, nerves and metrics…
He actually got an introduction to weather Southern style shortly after arriving in Alabama. A round of severe weather hit Alabama, and as we took cover in a basement his big blue eyes stayed nervously on the TV. By this time I was a veteran and I kept falling asleep, but he kept waking me up wanting to know if the storm was close to the county we were in. I guess you don’t get many twisters in the High Desert of New Mexico…those green chilies must keep the darn things away…that’s what a Scoville unit will do for you…
In the 1980’s I rode a storm out in the basement of my first house with my son. He was about three or four at the time. We had been back from one of our field assignments in New York State where we had spent about nine months. Almost as soon as we got back, the company had sent Gomez on another field assignment.
In the South, when there is a tornado warning in your county the civil defense sirens go off…it can be an eerie experience, especially if the power is out and you hear them in the distance against the backdrop of darkness…it’s very 1950-ish and Cold War-esque.
This particular night I had been following the weather on the TV and the minute the warning was issued on the TV we heard the sirens. I gathered up a flashlight, my pursed and some candles and ushered the little one downstairs, trying to remain calm and reassuring.
This basement was not a luscious tricked out place…it was just a place to go when we needed to be safe. The washer and dryer were down there and Gomez’ tools and workbench…oh, and the cat box. No human potty.
As the storm approached, guess who need the use of a facility? Moi. I tried to convince the fruit of my loin I could run upstairs really fast, use the bathroom, be safe and get back to the basement in a flash and he would be safer downstairs below ground level. Was he convinced? Heck no. What did I do? All I can say is necessity is truly the mother of invention…
We eventually lost power for a bit as the storm approached and as we sat in the dark under the ping pong table I watched the Rose of Sharon tree outside the basement window whipped and beat around like a pom-pom. It was flaying in the wind and doing an eerie dance against the backdrop of fierce lightening. It was a terrifying sight to behold.
Fortunately, my sweet little Loveladys…my surrogate grandparents…were next door, and Momma and Daddy were about a mile away. The power came back on shortly and my sweet baby and I went back upstairs. There were a few houses in the neighborhood with some damage, but this storm and not been as severe. My damage? My bedroom window had been left open and pillows and some bed linens had been blown off the bed. A small price to pay!
I was afraid Gomez (maybe I should call him Gomex) would hear about the storm and become alarmed and concerned about our safety, but, *slap forehead* what was I thinking?! I tried calling him at the hotel he was staying at…until the very wee hours of the next morning and never could reach him…and he just never had a good explanation either…that wasn’t the first time…and it certainly wasn’t the last time…hence the new Mrs. Gomez. (I often wondered back then how he contracted hepatitis in the late 1970’s, but Bev is much smarter now.)
There were blips on the weather screen over the next few years…scares and nears misses if you will. The civil defense sirens went off many times and many times we were fortunate.
Then in April 1998 I was alone at home…this time just a couple of blocks from my parents…with my precious Lady…my little angel…my English Cocker Spaniel who is now in doggie heaven. I was just three years past my latest bout of lung cancer and the surgeon had hacked 60% of my left lung out of me this time. I had not recovered as well this time because of all the autoimmune disorders I had developed over the years…in other words…I wasn’t feeling too good this particular day.
The weather was spooky and bad this day. Ladybug as I called her hated storms. She was stuck to me like a Post-it note. Not only that, she usually trembled and shook so badly that sometimes we would have to give her what I called a “falling down pill”…in human terms…a nerve pill.
This particular day I stayed vigilant concerning the weather. You see, in 1995 right around the time of my last cancer, a storm had come through and my best friend had lost the chimney on her home. And, now about two and half years later here I was AGAIN alone with my babydog. Gomez was off on another field assignment. I was working on a quilt as I sat in the bed…one eye on TV and the weather…one eye on my quilt.
Then the alarm was sounded! There had been a tornado spotted in Jefferson County. *gulp* As I carefully listened though, it sounded like it was in a distant part of the county, so feeling poorly I thought I would “ride” it out upstairs. Well, guess that’s what I get for thinking, huh…
Before I knew it I began to hear that noise like a 747 on approach for a landing at JFK. I didn’t need a light bulb going off over this gal’s head to tell me what it was…and neither did Ladybug! I sprang from the bed and so did she. It was instinct for both of us. I headed for the basement stairs and lo and behold that little red streak beat me to the bottom of the stairs. I never did figure out HOW she knew to run straight for the stairs with out me telling her to…it was like I was following her!
We were both shaking in our proverbial boots…and rightly so. As it turned out, the tornado had just passed us over and we had been very fortunate. But, in another section of Jefferson County, AL that April 1998 the news had not been so good. The tornado carved a 31 mile long path that was ¾ of a mile wide killing 32 people in its wake. The big cruel monster had lifted just before it hit the northeastern side of town where Lady and I cowered in the basement listening to it roar overhead…and then as unpredictable as a bipolar schizophrenic off their meds, it touched down once again in St. Clair County (where I was to move five months later) and kill two more people.
The monster was an F5 tornado…one of two in the whole nation that year. To say it was a historical event is an understatement. Major news outlets sent satellite trucks to cover the devastation. Even our local anchors and news crews looked stunned and you could hear emotion in their voices as they covered the devastation. Some seasoned professionals were moved to tears. The damage looked like the debris from Hiroshima.
And so, that was springtime in Alabama…or how it can be on occasion…and that brings us up to my two most recent encounters…
To be continued…
© 2008 Beverly Hicks Burch All Rights Reserved.