Natural Disaster, Part II (Or: Tornadoes and the shame of being found dead in your basement with a bike helmet on)

February 7, 2013

As I was telling you in my previous post, we recently found ourselves huddled under blankets in our basement at 3:30 in the morning, just three weeks after our move back to the United States.

A "safe" country, right? I mean, we were coming from South Africa, of all places. Johannesburg, specifically. Which, prior to moving there three years ago, we had been told was most likely the most dangerous place on Earth.

The scene on our deck after Hurricane Fran in 1996

No one tells you that about Brentwood, Tennessee.

"What the hell," I had said in our Brentwood house at 2:30 a.m. when I sat up in bed, having been roused by the most horrible wailing noise rising to a deafening crescendo every few seconds and then receding again. It took me a while to realize that it was not, in fact, an ambulance driving around in circles.

"Yeah I know," said Noisette, sitting up next to me. "What is this?

It was a tornado warning siren. Accompanied by huge gusts of wind rattling our windowpanes it sounded pretty scary. And we were more than miffed, I tell you, that no one had informed us that we had moved to tornado country, again.

Then we did what everyone does in case of an emergency.

We turned on the TV.

If there is one thing Americans are particularly good at, it is to collect an enormous amount of data, beef it up with lots of fancy charts and terms and ratios, and throw it all back at you on TV with two guys chatting in the background incessantly.

So it is for baseball, and so it is for The Weather Channel.

We were captivated. There was a scary red jaggedy line bisecting the map on the screen, and it was inexorably moving towards the general area where we live. Every once in a while the screen would go black and an otherwordly cracking voice would issue a tornado warning in an eerie monotone. Then the weather chart would come back on and there would be more data, interspersed with scary images of trees toppling onto cars in downtown Nashville.

The problem was that even with all this information and preparedness, we weren't sure as to what to do. Or, I should say, we knew exactly what we should do (after all, we've lived in Kansas before), but we were oh so reluctant to do it.

The TV, you see, is in our bedroom. As are the nice cushy bed and warm blanket. Our basement, in contrast, is very empty. And cold.

The thought of rousing four sleeping children and ferrying them to the safety of the basement to sit around and shiver was not very inviting. Plus the TV was so fascinating.

So we made pacts. "When they show our actual town, we'll make a move," we pledged. Then when it appeared on the map, we amended it to "When they actually say the words 'take shelter immediately' we'll make a move."

In the end, all it took was one gigantic blow to our bedroom window to make us jump up and scurry out, shooting off in different directions to collect the kids. I grabbed my computer and a bunch of pillows and blankets, and stumbled downstairs where we all reassembled in the media room that is indeed built like a bunker.

"Who's hungry?" was my first question. My idea was to run back upstairs and find yogurt and chips and perhaps ice cream to make this one fun slumber party.

See, that's what I do. Up at night because of a tornado? Find a way to make it fun. Being asked to move across the world for your husband's job? Find a way to make it fun.

But Noisette had other ideas.

"Are you crazy?" were his words. "We need to SLEEP!"

So everyone duly rolled themselves in their blankets and pretended to sleep. I tried to follow the storm's progress on my computer, but it turns out the keys make a clicking noise that prevents my dear husband from pretending to sleep. Plus the online coverage wasn't nearly as good as that on TV.

It was Zax who eventually saved us by getting up and saying "this is stupid" and checking the time. By then the warning had expired, and everything seemed quiet outside, so we all made our way back to the comfort of our beds. Zax accosted me first thing next morning.

"Why did you make us go to the basement? No one goes to their basement when there is a tornado warning and there isn't even a tornado!"

Leave it to my teenager to worry only about what other people do. I refrained from engaging in an argument about his skewed logic. And it turns out he's not alone in this. A friend told me her husband drew the line at putting on a bike helmet (apparently another tornado precaution I have not heard of before). Being found dead in your basement bath with a bike helmet on in his eyes must be much, much worse than dying in a tornado.

After our little basement interlude (the only casualty was a letter Sunshine meant to send to a friend in South Africa and had deposited in our mailbox to be picked up by the postman - it would be found days later, mud-soaked, somewhere else in our yard) I decided I much prefer hurricanes to tornadoes. Because you get days and days of warning about those, and you'll know ahead of time whether you're in one's path or not (meaning you can heat up and stock the basement well in advance).

Although I think my memory must be clouding up, because in the immediate aftermath of the last hurricane we lived through, I didn't think they were preferable to anything at all.

It was the year 1996, the first week of September, and we had just brought our first baby home from the hospital a week earlier.

Back in those days, hurricane tracking was actually not nearly as fine-tuned as it is now (don't I sound terribly old when I say "back in those days"?). There had been talk of a hurricane looming in the Atlantic and perhaps heading for Charleston, but that is a pretty commonplace summertime occurrence if you live in the Southeastern United States, and we didn't make much of it. No hurricane really ever comes as far inland as Raleigh, was the conventional wisdom. We went to bed, watching Friends, most likely (that's how old we are), and when the power went off shortly after 9:00 pm we simply went to sleep.

When we woke up at 2:00 in the morning with a jolt, something seemed wrong. It was pitch dark and the wind was howling outside.

"There is something in front of our window," I said to Noisette. "Something that doesn't belong there."

The altered view from our bedroom window

It was one of two massive trees that crashed onto our house that night, along with another thirty-four or so downed pine trees littering the yard. But we didn't know that then. All we knew was we had a baby to protect, so we grabbed him out of his crib, ran downstairs, and spent the rest of the night huddled on a mattress as far as possible from any windows.

All we had to get news from the outside world was a tiny battery-powered radio, which we sat glued to for the rest of the night while the crack of trees being snapped in half like matchsticks could be heard all around us. Just as the announcer told us that "the eye of the hurricane is now directly over Raleigh," everything fell utterly silent for a few long minutes, then started up again with renewed mayhem. My lasting memory of it all is the humongous power of nature that you never think is possible until you've seen it. The amount of space a tree can be made to move back and forth by a hurricane is unbelievable. And the noise is deafening.

We woke up the next morning to the most desolate scene of destruction I had ever witnessed. There were trees and branches strewn everywhere, and there was a large crack in our roof. None of our neighbors had fared any better. All of Raleigh looked the same, with power lines down everywhere and debris scattered about. Neat piles of wood dotting the residential curbs would only emerge later and were a part of the cityscape for months, with the constant buzzing of chain-saws as a backtrack. All told, the damages caused by Hurricane Fran amounted to $2.4 billion in North Carolina alone.

It took a crane to get those off again

I love  how that bird feeder narrowly survived, untouched.

It took seven long days for us to get the power back. At least we didn't get any flooding or contaminated water like people in low-lying areas. My parents, who were visiting at the time to help with the baby but had missed the hurricane due to a short excursion into the mountains, came back, took one look at the situation, and departed. They had come for a new baby and not for a long bout of yard cleanup, was probably their thinking. "Ridiculous," were my mother's parting words. "Even after bombings during World War II in Germany we got our power back within a few hours, at most a day."

Somehow, we made do, cooking and heating water on our gas grill and taking cold showers. The heat was unbearable, and yet somehow Zax protested bitterly when we gave him his first bath ever in cold water. I spent my entire three months of maternity leave with a routine of nurse, put baby to bed, run to the yard to haul wood until baby cries again...

Zax blissfully ignorant of the destruction all around

But it's one thing to lose power when it is unbearably hot. It's entirely another story when you lose power while it is unbearably cold.

There was another baby in the house by the winter of 2002, this time our fourth one, when an ice storm felled half the trees in our yard yet again (this was a different house, but also in Raleigh). We couldn't even get out the first day, until a friendly neighbor liberated us with his chain-saw. And then we sat and shivered. Our fireplace wasn't nearly adequate to heat even the tiniest area to bearable temperatures, and I was truly worried about Sunshine, who wasn't even crawling yet at the time, packing her in snowsuits and smothering her with blankets.

After three days of misery, I was ready to move out. Noisette, mind you, was happily departing for work and a heated office every morning and probably actually welcomed the cold nights he so professes help his sleeping. We are forever battling over the thermostat control.

pine trees snapped like match sticks by the heavy ice

I packed everyone into the minivan and started driving, with no particular plan other than trying to stay warm. I left messages on friends' answering machines who had equally abandoned their houses, and eventually pulled up at a McDonald's that was open for business, because Impatience had to use the potty.

I remember it very clearly. We were all squeezed into the stall - the kids were still little and I couldn't leave them at a table on their own - and Impatience, who had been clutching DeeDee, her white teddy bear, throughout the entire ordeal, temporarily released her grip and the bear went flying into the toilet.

Yes, I tell you, right into the toilet.

There was a second of stunned silence as we all stood around and contemplated the situation. Then the wailing started. And for once, I didn't have the capacity to console or come up with a plan. Instead, I joined Impatience in her misery and started crying. There was no home to go back to, let alone a washing machine and dryer for DeeDee, the hotels were already booked by people who were quicker to decide, and standing in a fast food joint about to have to reach into a toilet felt like absolute rock bottom to me.

I can't remember how exactly DeeDee made it  back into the fold of our family - I'm sure I suppressed that memory - but as usual the answer to all troubles lay in the power of friendship. One of my messages from earlier was picked up by friends who were heading back into town because their power had just come back on, and we all ended up spending a few fun nights at their house.

So far it has all ended well, but I can tell you this: I am sick and tired of hauling debris from fallen trees. I never once had to do that in South Africa. The only trees I hauled there were to provide firewood to township women, a much more gratifying activity.

Hauling firewood through Diepsloot
What were your encounters with natural disasters, on either side of the Atlantic? Please share the story.

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