Updated: Feb 15, 2021
It was a gray and rainy Sunday. Our three young children were taking their afternoon nap while my husband and I watched a movie. We didn’t see it coming—all of a sudden, the wind came up and branches were coming in through the windows. The lights flickered late in a warning. We jumped off the couch to grab our kids from their beds and crib. We carried our half-asleep children down into the basement which was dark from the power outage. And just as fast as the storm had come, it was gone.
We came upstairs thirty minutes later to witness rain pouring in through all the broken windows. Damage lingered to reveal what we had missed in the darkness of the basement. Branches, debris, and glass covered every surface. In that moment we realized that we had experienced our first tornado. I remember looking at my husband and then at the destruction around us and thinking, “What do we do now?”
We picked up our kids and carried them across the broken glass to reach their little superhero shoes. We emerged from our house at the same time as our neighbors. Each of us walked slowly; we were curious, cautious, hesitant, and a little overwhelmed. Ancient trees laid across rooftops, buried cars, and blocked the street. Live power lines surrounded the streets like poisonous snakes. “Are you OK?” was the anthem shouted across lawns. Neighbors started knocking on doors to make sure the elderly were alright. Folks were counting kids to ensure that no one was missing. Once we had accounted for everyone, we stood still in the unknown together.
It was my next-door neighbor who moved first. He called his buddies and asked them to come with all the boards they could find to start boarding up all the windows. My other neighbor made a call to get a generator. We called our friend to bring his chainsaw. Night would be coming and we had to move fast. It was still raining, the sky was still gray, and we had limited time to ensure everyone’s safety.
I remember wearing my daughter on my back because, at one-year-old, she wanted to touch everything and explore by putting everything she touched in her mouth. We focused on securing the property, taking pictures for insurance companies, and making sure that everyone had food and candles to survive the next 24 hours.
There are five different languages spoken on our block, so it took time to work through translation issues, but we did it. We shared resources like phones with cameras. We spread perishable food out between the homes that had generators so that everyone could save some food. Friends who had come to help couldn’t get through, so they would drive as far as they could, hop out, chainsaw the fallen tree in their way, move it to the side, and then drive 15 feet to do it again.
What in the moment felt like a surreal movie scene has now become a familiar memory and shared experienced that binds us together with our neighbors. It is an experience we will toast to and reference when we tell stories at block parties with new neighbors.
The story of our tornado experience reminds me how tragedy can bring communities together to work toward a common cause. We all shared a collective struggle and we needed one another to survive. Have you shared a collective tragedy or trauma with your community? Did that experience bring you closer to your neighbors, and if so, did you remain close after the situation resolved?