We didn’t have any tornado helmets. It was something Neal’d heard in passing on the news broadcast, something our friend Erica had mentioned on Facebook in response to my update, “Tornadoes again. TORNADOES. AGAIN.” We’d had tornadoes in Western Alabama just two weeks previous—another set of warnings a week before that. All told, three times since we’d moved here from Nebraska the sirens had wailed around town. In Nebraska we knew to get to a basement. In Tuscaloosa, no one had basements. We had no rooms without windows, and now we had no tornado helmets.
It wasn’t the sirens that made us take cover. It was the sky Neal saw as he opened the door and stood on our little brick porch. “Can you see it?” I asked. We could see only it, the tornado filling the sky to the west. Debris soaring two hundred feet in the air. The black mass it all swirled around looked to be at the end of our block.
We shut the door. Neal found a wooden wastebasket and our sturdiest stockpot, and we sat, girded Tweedledumly under blankets and housewares, on the floor outside our bathroom. Overhead what sounded like a Panzer growled and grumbled. It lasted only twenty seconds, maybe thirty, those seconds filled with loud plinks against the windows and siding, as though a whole mess of fifth graders were egging our house.
Then it was over, the rumbles replaced by high swishy winds. “Do tornadoes have eyes?” I asked. Another ten seconds. “I don’t know,” Neal said. “I’m going to go look.”
MGM got it wrong. When tornadoes hit they transport us somewhere devoid of color. The sky in Tuscaloosa was still dark, but what used to be a line of green trees against that sky was now missing. We could see for another mile beyond our block, and everything was gray and gray. Treetrunks spanned the road at both ends, and car windows, including ours, were blown out.
Louise, our octogenarian neighbor to the west, was missing her awning. Her car had been gone all day, so we hoped she’d made it out of town in advance of the storm. I checked in with Mark, the middle-aged bachelor to the east. His home’s windows were gone, and his van had been blown into the middle of his lawn. Mark himself was okay. I asked if he had anywhere to stay. “I think I’m gonna stick around,” he said, his eyes on the strangers walking our street, many of them claiming another tornado was on the way. “I can’t tell if some of these people live here or are just scoping out the houses, you know?”
We’d made plans to stay with Heather and Peter up in Northport, right across the Black Warrior River. Mark said he’d keep an eye on our house for us, and we set off on foot through the night. It took an hour to walk to the Hampton Inn where our friends had parked, the closest the cops would let them get to the destruction. Our shoulders started to ache from the loads we carried. Neal’s backpack rose over his head and hung down past his ass. I’d been wishing for years that he’d sell the enormous thing, free up space. “Whenever you get on Twitter,” he said with his mock disdain for the social network. “I want you to tell everyone that I was right for holding on to this backpack.”
Thursday morning we found WiFi at a diner and answered everyone’s same terrified messages, assuring the world we were okay. Heather and Peter loaned us their car and we tried to check on the house, but the cops forced us to stop on University Boulevard. We parked near The Highlands, one of Tuscaloosa’s toniest neighborhoods, which still had most of its trees. Alberta City, on the other hand, just to the east, had been razed to the ground.
We walked past the Capstone Child Development Center, bisected by a utility pole. Aluminum siding hung like tinsel from branches stripped bare of their leaves. Whole streets of houses had been flattened. People dug whatever they could from the piles of bricks and torn lumber. It was more nomadism than exodus down University, everyone coming and going carrying storage containers, garbage bags, boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts.
On our block, at the southern end of Alberta, there’d been no looting after all. Mark told us the police had patrolled the streets throughout the night. We heard chainsaws buzzing in every direction. Neighbors in gloves hefted whole treelimbs from their lawns. Neal and I got to work sweeping glass from our cars, helping Mark find his garbage bin in the brambles behind our house.
Our plan was to navigate the Volvo around the wreckage and find a garage that was open. Before we left we took another walk down the block and saw FEMA tags spraypainted on the windows of shattered homes. Everywhere the smell of pine, like Yuletide.
At the corner of 14th Street and 15th Avenue I saw a man and a woman in orange Home Depot aprons, taking a break from their shifts. I asked if they’d been busy. “Not yet,” the woman said. Her apron had KIM written on it in black marker. “But we will be when the generators come in.” A shipment of 300 was expected later that afternoon.
Home Depot was just over there, across the parkway. There’d been little damage. But the CVS at the corner of 15th and McFarland had its windows blown out. Full Moon BBQ, a five-minute walk away, was rubble. The entire neighborhood of Alberta had been erased. Our little stretch of 14th Street sat in the middle of all this. I’m not a meteorologist. I don’t know the world’s physics enough to understand what happened in those minutes Neal and I hunkered together and shared our I-love-yous. And it’s this unknowing that remains, days later. How we’re alive is some hard mystery.