The Basement Diaries

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Harry Potter is famous for having spent his childhood in the “cupboard under the stairs,” but we in North Alabama are more familiar with The Basement Diaries . This is the name I affectionately call the times of my life spent waiting out Huntsville’s weather advisories.

One of my earliest memories was eating spaghetti in a high chair in a closet under the stairs during an active “weather event” while spending the night with my grandparents. The year was 1974 when tornadoes hit Huntsville Hospital and Parkway City Mall (precursor to a 2nd Parkway City Mall and Parkway Place). I was not yet 2, but realized that something wasn’t right about eating dinner in the closet with my grandparents and my sisters…

During my elementary & middle school years, weather drills taught us to sit with our knees pulled under us, our heads on the floor and a hardcover textbook over our heads. I never understood how the textbook would help, but we followed the rules regardless.

Then, in November of 1989, everything I knew about bad weather came to serve me well. This was no “wait in a closet or interior room for it to blow over” moment. This, for many of my family and friends was a life- changing event.

A tornado touched down and stayed on the ground all along Airport Road, two blocks from my grandmother’s house, then jumped the hill to hit Jones Valley. My history class was at my home in downtown Huntsville filming a mock newscast of an event we were studying. The “train” can be heard in the video, but it was no train. The sky turned green and the oppressively hot day turned ice cold with light snow. The house rattled and shook, lights flickered and none of us knew what to do. Should we kneel down, put our heads to the floor and cover with a textbook? No, I thought. “Get to a lower level,” I remembered the weatherman advising. Luckily, we had a basement…

After the winds died down and we resurfaced to our main level, I began to worry about my parents who were traveling to a funeral in South Alabama. What about my grandmother, or my aunt, 9 months pregnant and staying at my grandmother’s house 2 blocks from Airport Road? My imagination began to run wild.

Surprisingly, no calls were able to connect within the city, though I was able to reach my sister in Tuscaloosa. She began a long night of relaying calls between family members, verifying for each of us that the other was all right.

In the days that followed, we began to survey the damage, hear the stories and lament the losses and injuries. We also rejoiced in the stories of safety and community, of people helping each other or of those who searched tirelessly for trapped victims of the storm. We were amazed at the skill and stamina of Huntsville’s medical community as they cared for all whom required medical assistance. The stories of valiant citizens pulling together overwhelm me to this very day.

My aunt was fine (her son was born 3 days later) and my parents were safe, but many friends were injured or lost their homes. Airport Road was a very sobering sight. All the buildings that I, as a child, thought would always be there were reduced to piles of sticks. Cars were packed 4-5 high against buildings with chain link fencing wrapped neatly around them. A friend’s house, like many in the Jones Valley area, was completely gone, except for a grand piano with the sheet music still in place. Cancelled checks from Toney Drive were found in Chattanooga. The weird incidents go on and on.

So, today I add another installment in The Basement Diaries. My version now is taking the weather radios, flashlights and snacks to my own basement while my kids play the Wii and wait for the weather to subside. We are so blessed with active weather services, state of the art satellite imaging and fantastic warning sirens paid for by grants from former Congressman Bud Cramer. Some of North Alabama’s residents even started companies that provide satellite imagery systems all over the world. We are weather aware and today, thankfully, we’re safe.

So, here we are in North Alabama. Some people face hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, wildfires and the like. We in North Alabama face tornadoes. Luckily, we usually have the ability to prepare. And I, for one, have seen the worst back in 1989. It really happened. The experience was truly horrific. But there’s an unbelievable sense of serenity in having seen the worst situation imaginable bring about the best compassion and caring in our citizenry. The event makes me even prouder to call Huntsville “home” and makes The Basement Diaries a slight hiccup in an otherwise lovely day.

 

UPDATE:  The April 27 tornadoes left North Alabama without power for a week.  The Madison County Commissioner Mike Gillespie, Madison County Sheriff Blake Dorning and Huntsville’s Mayor Tommy Battle held radio broadcasts for daily briefings and reminded me of my grandmother’s stories of FDR’s “Fireside Chats” during World War II.  Although the area of Huntsville that was affected was largely farmland and neighborhoods away from the city’s center, rather than a big commercial center like Airport Road in 1989, the effects of this tornado brought out North Alabama’s sense of community once again.  Churches and volunteers organized Herculean efforts of clean up, feeding the displaced or homeless, feeding the volunteers, counseling the grieving over the losses of human life …  Once again, I was so proud of our community.  The leadership was strong, the giving was generous and the people worked together.

My daughters and I made our way to Fords Chapel United Methodist Church, the state’s oldest Methodist congregation, and helped pack up their nursery so that all would not be ruined by the incoming rain to the damaged roof.  The original chapel was completely lost, leaving only the narthex standing.  Even the steeple was found sideways in the parking lot.  Thankfully, a newly constructed sanctuary was undamaged, aside from a bit of roof damage.  To my amazement, many of the people packing up the church lived a street over and had lost huge portions of their own homes.  They packed the church and then went home to pack up what was left of their own belongings.  Their sense of community led them to care for others before themselves.  People can’t be made to be this way, they just “are.”

Tuscaloosa, parts of Birmingham and Cullman were horribly affected by these terrible storms.  Their stories were played out on all of the national news media and in the recent coverage of Alabama football games, most notably when players from Kent State were met at Bryant-Denny Stadium with a standing ovation.  You see, their players traveled to Tuscaloosa this summer to help in the clean-up efforts and to show their support for the people of Alabama.  Even Auburn fans joined in the love.

So, another update in the “Basement Diaries.”  Now, North Alabama has even greater emergency preparedness and this, along with all we’ve learned plus the weather forecasting technology we have, will make all the difference if and when we face storms again.

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