Things are not so good in Alabama right now. The day of storms went from overcast to brilliant sunshine. I am on the phone with someone who is in Florida watching the storm map. It’s going to be really bad, he says. Outside is beautiful. The first storm is about 20 minutes away.
I collect the younger daughter, where she is sitting in the girls bathroom with her classmates and the adults, who are watching the rainbow of weather sweep over us on radar maps. I join them until we get an all-clear. Then we drive to the older daughter’s school. There are about 20 minutes until the next storm hits. This is our window.
Outside is gray and blustery. My car windows are all fogged up. We pass a car that is totaled, as if it were dropped on its front corner: wind, panic, other car, random bad luck? A few blocks later, an enormous tree has been uprooted, its branches snagging the power lines; the traffic lights are out.
Mommy, this is so exciting, says the younger daughter. I can understand, she continues, that for the adults, you might be a bit worried. You’re thinking: Can I get everyone home safely? But, for us kids, it’s really fun.
The rain has picked up when we reach the older daughter’s school. The children sit against the walls. The teachers have walkie-talkies. Then we all need to take a brace position. The crossing guard comes in. The principal walks the halls and tells everyone what great job they’re doing. The rain lets up and we dash across the parking lot and back into the car.
I’ve counted six police cars! the younger daughter exclaims.
The rest of the day is spent with the TV on, the sirens wailing, the grating caw of the emergency broadcast system. Seek shelter, go to your safe place, hail the size of mothballs, golf balls. A sighting, a wall cloud, a hook, a super cell. In the UK, weather talk has some good words, like parky and diabolical, but essentially you are describing a range of cool and damp. Wednesday was a meteorology-fest.
We sit in the bathroom, the one interior, windowless space in our house with the dog, sometimes the cats, sometimes flashlights, sometimes pillows, and listen to the radio. If this goes on all night, will we have to take turns sleeping in the bathtub? It is a very small bathroom.
Then we lost power.
That night was thundery and dark but the storms had passed so no one had to sleep in the tub. We lay in bed listening to the aftermath take shape. After the rains come the floods, the displaced snakes, the tainted water supply. Don’t jump into standing water because the fire ants will leap upon you as their means of escape. Insulin can last without refrigeration for up to 28 days. Put a frozen roast in the refrigerator to help maintain temperature.
We listen as the fatalities double by the hour. Water is still fine to drink but the mayor suggests people set some aside. A local radio station is running on a generator. Local TV stations are broadcasting on the radio.
If you know where there is a business open or a place to donate food or diapers, call the station. The news people keep up a steady stream of information. Check on your neighbor. Don’t call 911 and ask where you can buy gas. Don’t sightsee. Don’t drive. No power means no gas. Keep it in perspective.
While the storm is raging you are looking at the map of the county not the country but when you pan back you see how large a storm it is and it is the worst weather happening in the US. We are on the map. State of emergency, federal reserve troops are called up, friends from Europe email. Obama comes to Tuscaloosa.
We evacuate to a family house in small town until they give us back modern life as we know it and where, conversely, there is wifi. No power? An older man we know just chuckles. We didn’t have power in the country for a long time, he says. Not til the 50s. He means electrification. We cooked over wood. I went to school over there. We had a uniform. The girls wore a white collar over a navy dress. You got some cedar branches to clean it. Boiled flour to make starch. Iron in the fire. And they looked good. He chuckled like that last time we saw him, when he saw we’d fixed our dog.