Last Wednesday, when the tornados hit Tuscaloosa and west Birmingham, we were just sitting down to dinner in our dining room with seven or eight family members. If you don’t live in a tornado-prone area, I’m sure it’s hard to understand how you ever feel unconcerned about the tornado siren going off. But we get a lot of false alarms, and we were pretty much carrying on with dinner as usual.
That was until we saw the news footage of the tornado in downtown Tuscaloosa. In (almost) a lifetime in Alabama, I’ve never seen shots of a tornado like that. So massive and so clearly defined. We opened all the blinds to look out the windows, and we kept the news on to follow the path of the tornado. (Tuscaloosa is about 60 miles from here.) Pretty soon, the weather guys were going from saying the tornado was headed straight for downtown Birmingham to saying it had missed the center of the city entirely. So just about the time we were ready to go down to the basement, we realized the tornado was already gone.
But here’s what’s still hardest to fathom, even moreso a week later, after having seen all the photos of the devastation nearby. We live in one of the older neighborhoods in the city itself, so we’re within the city limits. Pleasant Grove is about 10 miles away from us. Pratt City is about seven miles. If you’ve watched the news at all, you’ve seen the swathes of trees and buildings knocked flat to the ground in those towns–square miles where it looks like a bomb went off. But where we are, just a few miles away, we walked out in the morning and there weren’t even leaves scattered on the patio. No limbs down, no damage at all to the house, no issues with power.
What we kept talking about for the next few days was that we surely didn’t feel any closer to those images on the news than people felt who were watching in New York or Seattle. We went driving up I-59 last Sunday, hoping to see what had happened around the Pleasant Grove and Pratt City area, but the National Guard–understandably–wasn’t so keen on people coming to gawk.
I’d like to not think of it as gawking. I do think, especially when you’re so close to a tragedy like this and yet personally untouched–you want to connect to it. You want to feel it, because to NOT feel it seems a lot more disrespectful than gawking. The more stories you hear, the more pages of the missing you see, the more calls for diapers and bottled water and children’s toys you come across, the more it feels like you should feel as much of the sadness and loss as you can. The more you should try to connect your own life to the lives of those in the hardest-hit areas. And everyday, there are more chances to do that. From the Red Cross, to every church I know, to schools and neighborhoods associations, everyone is reaching out to see what donations are needed.
And that’s surely the best way to connect. The difference in being six miles away from the survivors as opposed to thousands of miles away is that we can reach them faster. We can take a carload of bottled water and baby clothes to our church, and it can all be in Pratt City in half an hour. You can see that happening all over Birmingham–every group possible coming to their members with detailed lists of needs that came straight from those most affected. It’s a great glimpse of the city, really, to just open e-mail each morning and see how many people, how many different niches, are all trying to help.