I lived in Alabama for a long time. My whole life, up until I moved across the country (for reasons that I cannot remember, and that I'm not sure I even knew at that time). My home state gets its fair share of bad weather, and some of the clearest memories I have are the times spent staring at the television, wondering how long it would be before the tornado sirens started blaring. I think I learned how to read a weather map about the same time I learned my multiplication tables.
I don't remember much about kindergarten, but I can still smell the wax used to polish the floors, and feel the coolness of the wood against the backs of my legs the first time the weather forced me to sit, Indian-style, in the hallway, arms folded to protect my face, while the wind howled outside and our teachers comforted us.
My friend, Staci, and I were in New Orleans buying her wedding gown when we first heard that Katrina had turned and was projected to hit Louisiana. Both our mothers began calling ceaselessly until we assured them that we were in her car, headed back to Tuscaloosa. Hurricanes in the Gulf beget tornadoes farther inland, and Katrina proved no exception. Staci and I rode out the storm at my house in Northport, crammed for a while in my tiny guest bathroom -- because Alabama children are taught young that when bad weather heads your way, you set up camp in the center of your house, away from windows and doors. I was in law school at the time, and my whole life was inside my laptop. I wrapped it in some trash bags and put it in the dryer, reasoning that even if one of the pine trees in my backyard came through the roof, the double layer of protection would insure against water damage. It's crazy what you start to prioritize as you come to terms with the idea of a tornado actually hitting your home.
Thanks to James Spann and a lot of prayer, we got through just fine and were only minorly inconvenienced by an 8-hour power outage. As everyone knows, thousands and thousands and thousands of people were not as lucky.
I, and hundreds of other students, spent the subsequent weeks volunteering -- collecting canned goods, serving food, doing anything we could to keep ourselves busy and make the displaced hurricane victims just a little more comfortable. Students from Tulane and other NOLA schools moved to town and became our classmates and roommates for a semester, and our friends for a lifetime. We all seemed to feel helpless individually, but we took solace in the fact that together, maybe we could accomplish something.
It's the helplessness that grips me now.
Here I am, thousands of miles and four states away from Tuscaloosa, which was my home for seven years. I see photos, and I hear stories, and I am just so sad. The years I spent in Tuscaloosa are easily some of the funnest, most precious parts of my life, and the friends I made there are still among the people I hold most dear. To see the city destroyed, and then to be too far away to help rebuild it -- well, it frankly sucks. Writing a check or buying a t-shirt just does not leave me with the same sense of having helped anybody, and though I've done both, I wish more than anything that I could do more.
Parts of Choctaw County, where I grew up, were just leveled. My dad likened it to having a vacuum cleaner run loose through the woods, 200-year old oak trees splintered like twigs along the way. My mom told me that today alone, my home church (First Assembly of God) fed nearly 150 people who had been affected by the tornadoes there. To put that in perspective, the entire population of Choctaw County hovers around 15,000. And they fed 150 on a. single. day.
On a brighter note, I am proud. I'm proud of the resilience shown by so many of my fellow Alabamians. Their unwavering hope and faith that everything will get back to normal. Their untiring work, not only for themselves and their neighbors, but for people they don't even know. For all the people harboring negative impressions about the South, I believe that when they read the NY Times, or listen to a story on NPR, or watch CNN to see the latest news about the storm damage, what they see will be our fierce determination, our dedication to our neighbors in need, and our satisfaction in having gathered together to help ourselves. And they will see that even in the face of adversity and death and destruction, our spirit not only survives, but thrives.