Among the thoughts I’ve had since the Super Outbreak of tornadoes that hit Alabama on April 27, 2011, is this: if there’s not already an ICD-10 code for “Tornado-induced viral conjunctivitis, bilateral, initial encounter,” there probably should be.
There were 62 confirmed tornadoes in Alabama that day, 29 of them touching down in my neck of the woods. The experts had told us it was going to be bad, but around here we’re used to dire weather predictions that never seem to come true. Maybe we were all a little too relaxed when the anaconda sky finally opened wide and tried to swallow us whole.
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The cleanup crew
In the aftermath, we felt rudderless and disoriented.
Most of our region’s power grid had been knocked out, and we all tried our best to adjust to the post-apocalyptic new normal. We sat on our stoops and patios in the pitch black listening to the latest reports on hand-cranked weather radios and inhaling the aroma of neighbors grilling the various freezer meats that would have otherwise spoiled. Our two oldest sons were busy helping with relief in Tuscaloosa, and my wife and I wanted to be like them—useful.
We heard about a cleanup crew that was forming, so we volunteered. Neither of us are “handy” people, but it didn’t matter—all hands on deck were needed, no experience necessary. The big box wholesale clubs and home supply stores had their own generators and were doing a brisk business. We picked up some gloves and a few other supplies. I didn’t have a chainsaw, and you wouldn’t want me using one even I did. But I knew that many salt-of-the-earth country folk would be wielding them lickity split and making it fly. I picked up some boxes of safety glasses because the last thing we needed was stray splinters and perforated globes.
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Our cleanup site was a scooped-out crater encircled with a thorny crown of mangled, grotesque trees and littered with the shattered fragments of houses, hearts, hopes, and dreams. The air was pungent, damp, and heavy with the microscopic remains of faraway places that had rode in hard on the wind like bandits. Tornadoes throw off the balance of things and turn everything upside down; what was there shouldn’t have been, and what should have been was long gone. We inhaled heavily and wiped the sweat from our eyes without even thinking about the rusty, upturned nails, shards of glass, and bad bugs our bodies weren’t prepared to handle.