Life has been pretty good to me. I didn't come from money or privilege, but my parents loved me, kept me fed, clothed, and sheltered, and they saw to it that I got a good education and did their best to point me in the right direction. I grew up in a house full of siblings, neighborhood kids, friends, and others, and have rarely been alone or without a friend. I have never personally suffered a major tragedy, save the untimely loss of a young relative and a friend in his 20's. All told, I have made it to this point with little in the way of real complaints.
Yesterday, a mile wide EF4 tornado slowly plowed its way through my hometown, Tuscaloosa, Alabama and leveled not just homes but entire neighborhoods; not just businesses but entire shopping centers. The extent of the damage is so severe the National Guard was called in and are having to turn away would-be volunteers because there is too much destruction and the emergency responders have to handle it. They have to get it to a point that the public can come in and be of help. Last I heard, the death toll for Tuscaloosa was in the range of 32-35, and they are now going through systematically and tagging homes in the way they did in post-Katrina New Orleans.
I have no doubt that was the worst tornado ever to go through Tuscaloosa, and some have said it may be ruled the worst ever to hit Alabama. To my knowledge, my family and friends are all safe and accounted for, some with damage to their homes, but no loss of life, no major injury. We are blessed with their safety, we are deeply fortunate by their continued presence in our lives.
My younger brother, Blake, was in the Starbucks at Midtown Village, just off the intersection of McFarland Blvd. and 15th Street when the tornado came through. As is usually the case when you're in a public place and the sirens go off, they send everyone to the restrooms. He and several others were locked in when the tornado went by. (My estimation would be that the section of Midtown Village they were in missed being in the storm's direct path by a few hundred yards at the most. The side of the street they were on suffered severe damage several hundred yards back and complete destruction further down. The other side of the street was complete destruction in both directions and back behind.) He was so close to the edge of the tornado, he could feel the wind under the door, and heard the door rattling against the lock as the tornado went by, but when it passed, they all walked out shaken but unharmed.
There are many families out there who do not have a story with a happy ending to tell tonight. They will be among the many visiting loved ones in a critical care unit, or standing at a graveside in the days to come. Many are sleeping at make-shift shelters for an indeterminate amount of time until they can find better housing, and that's those with home owners insurance. Huge sections of public housing were leveled -- I can't imagine what those families will do.
Being 2,500 miles away in California and watching the local station's (Birmingham, ABC 33/40) weather being broadcast live online was so scary, such a feeling of helplessness waiting for all the tornadoes that went anywhere near my home and family to finally pass.
It is very easy to let the routine of life get in the way of the reality that we are all aware of but we all keep tucked safely away in the back of our minds: we are not promised our next breath. When you end a conversation in anger, that could be the last words you speak to that person. When you leave home and don't tell anyone goodbye, that could be the last chance you have to see those you left behind. I could have spent the day flying home to visit my brother in the ICU, or worse...I can't even type it...and would at least have the tiny comfort of having spoken to him on the phone a few days prior, having gone out for a drink together a few weeks ago, rather than having had a huge gap of time since we had last spoken or seen one another. A minuscule comfort, but something I would have always held on to. (And am unspeakably thankful that I am not holding onto now.)
I recently started a gratitude journal, and the level of gratitude I feel for the safety of my family and friends in what could have been a mass tragedy (and what has been a mass tragedy for others) makes what I have said here or could say in the journal seem trivial by comparison. But to pin all that I have felt in the last 24 hours down to one word: grateful.