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Personal Essays

The Storm Comes Around

Tornado season is a distant concept for most people. For some, it’s a scary but known part of life. Then there’s what happens when one of the South’s deadliest storms in history destroys your house.

Stas Orlovski, Midnight Storm, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Mixed Greens, NY.

It was April 27, my wife’s birthday. And I hadn’t bought her anything yet. I blame my dad for my habitual procrastination. One year he gave me a present about six months late. He hadn’t found “just the right thing” until then, he said. It was a rough and rusted vintage Coca-Cola sign he found at an antique store.

Sometime around 9 a.m., the first wave of storms made an impressive appearance as it approached my company’s campus, which sits on a hill overlooking the Tennessee River to the west and downtown Chattanooga to the east.

I sent my wife a text message: “You need to be in the hallway. Tornado warning.”

Yet a friend and I stood beside floor-to-ceiling glass on the fifth floor watching as the rain blew parallel to the ground and the wind bent trees in the courtyard. I had never wanted to be a storm chaser until right then. We were quickly ushered away from the windows to join the evacuation. Hundreds of us filed down the stairs to the basement level where it was crowded, hot, and the air thick with worry.

I hadn’t heard back from my wife, and I couldn’t get a wireless signal. After checking my phone dozens of times, holding it a little differently with each attempt, this message appeared: “Tree is on our house! Help!”

I laughed out loud, nervously.

Surely not.

We couldn’t even leave the basement yet.

Finally the all-clear came over the loudspeaker.

My older daughter had been evacuated, too. Just two miles away from my office, rushed in a single-file line out of her classroom and instructed to crouch down with her hands over her head. Hearing but not quite understanding the same rain and the same winds.

She burst into tears as soon as soon she saw me walking toward her in the long hallway of her elementary school.

“What’s wrong, Daddy?”

“Mommy and sister are OK.”

 

My wife had been in the kitchen, our younger daughter close by her side, as ever. She handed our daughter a peeled hard-boiled egg as the rain began to hit harder against the side of the house. She heard a sudden, fast wind that sounded nothing at all like a freight train. She picked up our daughter and ran, reaching the hallway just as they heard the crash of a tree hitting the roof and breaking through the ceiling less than 20 feet away. 

She heard a sudden, fast wind that sounded nothing at all like a freight train.

The tree hit squarely on the corner of the house and had stopped short of the floor, but would it hold? My wife ran into the girls’ bedroom and yanked a mattress from the bottom bunk into the hallway. She pulled it over their heads as she and our daughter lay shaking, praying, waiting.

They soon heard the voices of our next-door neighbors, circling the house and calling out for them. They emerged from under the mattress and began looking for a way out of the house. The front door was blocked by limbs on the outside and the kitchen door was stuck, slammed into the frame and the floor by the impact of the tree. Our bedroom window opened, my wife remembered. We’d taken off the screen once when we were locked out.

The neighbors helped them climb through and took them into their home. The woman held our daughter close, hugging her and speaking softly. After a few minutes, our daughter held up her clenched fist, opened it slowly, and asked, “Can I eat my egg now?”

 

The winds that ripped through our neighborhood that morning brought trees down onto two other homes within a half mile of our own. According to news archives, an EF1 tornado touched down near East Ridge, the small town where we lived, between 9:04 and 10 a.m. Late that afternoon, storms returned to the area and kept coming into the night.

It has been called the worst tornado outbreak the South has ever seen, spanning several states and leaving more than 300 dead, according to NWS records. Tuscaloosa, Ala., and the nearby towns of Ringgold, Ga., and Apison, Tenn., were devastated. Close to 500 homes were damaged in our county alone. Across the Chattanooga region, nearly a dozen confirmed—and possibly many more—tornadoes struck, and 81 people died.

Days after the tornado, a white minivan sped up the hill and into the curve toward our house, then slowed suddenly and came to a stop at the end of our driveway. The rear passenger-side door slid open and a woman inside spun around, planting her heavy feet on the running board. She reached down to grab her camera then began shooting.

I stood on the concrete porch, staring at her. She looked right through me. I was just something to see—another broken window or heavy tree limb reaching down through shingles and beams where it didn’t belong. I kept staring. She kept shooting. Eventually, satisfied with her spoils, she closed the door and the van drove away.

 

Credit: John Hawbaker

Our friends covered us in grace during the hours, days, weeks, and months that followed. They brought food and well wishes, packed boxes, played with the girls. They helped us move three times in four months. They offered the simple pleasure of their company.

One friend called in a group of volunteers from a local Christian disaster-relief organization just hours after the first storm to begin cutting away limbs from the roof in hopes of placing a tarp before the day’s later waves of rain passed through. They worked in shifts for days until they were satisfied that future rains would do minimal damage, before humbly accepting my thanks and moving on to another house and another set of limbs.

On the first day after the storm, another friend came bearing a gift: a five-liter box of Cabernet. We opened it unceremoniously, before an acceptable hour, as we talked about what happened next.

We would move in with my mom across town. Sure, we’d only have a bedroom to share, but we could make it work. Most of our things could go into storage. We were lucky most of them weren’t damaged. Would they be able to repair the house? Would we feel safe even if they could?

Maybe we could just fix it, sell it, and start over somewhere else. We had wanted to move anyway. But the memories. Our children. Birthday parties, muddy handprints on the wall, first steps, and a first day of school. Lazy Sunday afternoons. Late nights writing at the kitchen table. Dragging myself in from my 30th birthday party (beware the guest bearing Irish car bombs). Our fathers. Remissions, relapses, and hospice nurses. Thanksgivings. 

 

My best friend and I met up one evening and walked around inside as I talked about the day and pointed out remarkable examples of the damage. Kitchen cabinets and crown molding, just barely hanging on. Massive cracks in ceilings. Walls pulling away from one another at the seams.

He listened. And he watched as I took photos of little things I wanted to remember.

A hand-written poster that simply said “30,” taped to the back of a closet door. My father had hung it there to gently mock my wife on the last of her birthdays he got to see. A piece of molding in the walkway between our kitchen and living room where we’d measured the heights of our two girls as they grew. I wanted to stand them up next to it one more time, pencil in hand.

I took my best shot at a proper batter’s stance, swung, and shattered the dining room window.

We walked to the small bedroom that had been my younger daughter’s nursery and, later, the room where my father-in-law spent his final days. My own father’s dress blue uniform was still in the closet. I’d never known what to do with it. He, too, had lived with us for a few months four years ago while battling cancer.

My friend and I took from our pockets two shot-sized bottles of Jack Daniels. We toasted the good lives that began and ended there, the memories, and new beginnings.

He found a permanent marker and we each autographed the wall. I picked up a fallen beam about the length of a baseball bat. “I want to break something,” I said. I took my best shot at a proper batter’s stance, swung, and shattered the dining room window. My next swing just bounced off the picture window in the living room, sending my whole body backwards.

We laughed as I dropped the piece of wood, my hands still vibrating, then we looked around for a long few seconds and walked out the kitchen door.

I never saw the house again.

 

Our home was demolished and we sold the lot to the next-door neighbor who cared for my wife and daughter that morning. We found a great little place—a little bigger, a little nicer, even—in a great little neighborhood nearby.

Two photo canvases hang on a wall between our bedroom and the girls’. One shows their muddy handprints on tan-colored siding. The other, lines and dates and names on a piece of trim.

We’ve had birthday parties. We hosted Thanksgiving dinner. Our younger daughter will have her first day of kindergarten soon.

My wife’s birthday is coming around again. I still haven’t found the right gift. 

John Hawbaker lives and writes in Chattanooga, Tenn. He is groggy in the morning and a selectively aggressive team player. More by John Hawbaker