This is Part Two of a series of three about my experience with the EF-5 tornado that went through four counties in Mississippi on April 27, 2011. Part One can be found here, and Part Three, an account of the aftermath, will be forthcoming.
Wednesday, April 27, 2011.
Bzzzzzzz! My cell phone is still in vibrate mode. I’ve forgotten to turn the ringtone on. I pull my eyes away from the TV and answer it. It is my father, who is at work. “Are you—”
“I know,” I say. “I’m going to take cover.”
“I’ll call after it passes,” he says. His voice is clearly nervous. We hang up.
I take another look at the radar that the weatherman is talking about. That sure looks like a debris ball, I think, as the menacing supercell enters southwestern Noxubee County. Then bzzzzz! The phone buzzes again. This time it is one of my sisters.
“Erin, do you know what’s going on?” Of course. I have been following it on the local news, which, unfortunately, is swamped at this point with several simultaneous tornadic supercells, and have just checked the Internet to see if anyone has reported a tornado with this one. “Well, they are saying in the tornado warning that they’ve got a confirmed tornado—a big one.”
“Does that look like a debris ball on radar to you?” She says that it does. “All right,” I say, arriving at a decision instantly, as the crawl-space foundation of this old house flashes before my mind’s eye. “I’m getting the cat and getting out of here.” She agrees.
The tornado safety guidelines put out by the National Weather Service do not endorse leaving a house in a vehicle. I understand why. In general, a house can be regarded as a comparatively safe place to be in a tornado, whereas a vehicle cannot. Moreover, it’s possible to get on the road and drive directly into a different tornado or an area of high winds. When I tell my sister that I’m planning to leave, I know full well that I am going against this advice, and for all these reasons, I don’t recommend that to people in general—certainly not when there is not even a confirmed tornado, and in most cases, not even when there is one. However, as a meteorology student, I have closely monitored the extreme atmospheric conditions that would be in play for this event. I am aware that, under these circumstances, tornadoes that form are far more likely than normal to become “violent”—to reach an intensity at which even well-constructed homes are definitely not safe to be in because every wall in them is blown down. I am aware of what to expect if I choose to drive through the precipitating part of a supercell. (I was close to the wall cloud of one a week ago, after all!) I am aware that there is a clear spot north of Noxubee County, and there is nothing that will enter that area in the immediate future. And, most importantly, I have enough time to get away.
But only just enough. There is no time to lose. The storm is moving quickly, and at the angle it’s coming, it will be upon me in 20 minutes. I grab my laptop, leaving behind even the power cords. I reflect for a moment on the irony of this; I had recently seen my first AC adapter go out and had to get this one over the Internet. Well, there is no time to waste by crawling under my desk and unplugging the cord. I grab my purse. I shove my protesting cat into the cat carrier. Carrying only these things, I run into the vehicle, hoping that the lightly falling rain does not penetrate the laptop case, and apparently (so I discover later) leave a rut in the yard in my rush to get out of there. I head north.
I would not leave my cat at home, but the delay in grabbing up these things has cost me a few more minutes. Meanwhile, the tornado has not waited. It’s best not to say what speed I am driving, but no one else heading north is driving any differently. I wonder how many of them are on the road for the same reason that I am. The rain slacks off. I never run into any hail on this trip.
It is between Macon and Brooksville that I start seeing small pieces of branches fall from the sky. They are not large enough to slam to Earth with violence, so there is something almost graceful in it. I’ve never seen anything like this before. These are not being blown about horizontally by winds; they are falling like soft rain from the storm itself. The movement is vertical. The branches have been sucked into the mesocyclone, which tilts southwest to northeast; the part of the storm that I am under is nowhere close to the tornado! Seeing debris brings everything to mind that I have pushed out in my single-minded focus on getting away. It occurs to me that people somewhere may see debris from my house later on. Well, I’m safe, and the cat is safe, I think to myself. There’s nothing more I can do.
Almost mockingly, the sunlight breaks out as I leave Noxubee County. I hear the buzzing of my phone once more. It is my father, who has tried to call me several times since my sister called him and told him that I had decided to leave the house.
“You’re fine in that part of Lowndes County,” my father tells me over the phone. That fits with what I had seen on the radar; I knew that there was a dangerous supercell in Monroe County (the Smithville tornado, it turned out). I also know that, though nothing tornadic is coming for Starkville and Columbus at the time, I do not want to be stuck in one of these cities if that changed in an hour or so, as it often does during tornado outbreaks. I also don’t like the idea of pulling off the road indefinitely. I decide to stop at the house of friends in rural Lowndes County, and there I stay for an hour or so.
I am fully expecting that I will not have a house to go back to, or my house will be damaged beyond repair, or the town will be destroyed. I’ve read a lot of personal accounts of extreme weather events, and now it seems that I am about to live that awful aftermath. It is truly amazing how we are able to push thoughts like this out of our minds when we are focused on something critical, such as (possibly) survival itself. Now that this is not an imminent concern, the ugly realities of a tornadic strike hit me. I don’t know exactly what will be damaged, or how much, but there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. All I can do is wait to hear some news. It is a hideous wait, and yet, I am focusing more on the animal confined in her carrier next to me, and the fact that no one else was at home, than on the home itself. No one wants to lose a house, but when all is said and done, it’s just a house.
Over the course of my visit, my hosts learn that Macon has not been hit. The storm apparently passed over with rotation still apparent, but no tornado anymore. To my astonishment, there was apparently some nonchalance about the whole event in at least some parts of Macon. Finally I decide to return home, since I still indeed have one. I get there in time to settle in and watch with amazed horror as live footage of the tornado in Tuscaloosa airs. Later, I see video of the Noxubee County tornado. I find out through the TV news and Twitter—Macon, amazingly, has power—that many people in the Southeast are not so fortunate as I have been this afternoon. My own experience is pushed back to a different corner of my mind as the hideous extent of the destruction and suffering becomes known. I have not suffered loss. I focus on those who have.