My sister Carla and her husband Carl live in the countryside in northeastern Alabama, in a valley bounded by long low ridges. This is near the southern terminus of the Appalachians: the ridges run northeast to southwest. And in that part of the world tornados run southwest to northeast.
On Wednesday evening Carla had gotten home from work, and was watching the weather on TV. She picked up the phone and called my mother, who lives ten miles away, because it looked like a tornado was headed for Mom’s house, and Mom needed to take cover in her laundry room. Carla hung up, and then noticed something strange: though it was very quiet all around, debris started falling out of the sky: pieces of wood and plastic, big clumps of earth. The tornado had shifted direction and was headed straight up their valley.
Soon everything began shaking. They put on motorcycle helmets and huddled in the center of the house. The terrified dog started to bolt for the door; Carl grabbed him and held on tight. The house shook harder. Windows burst. One floor above them, the roof came off in large pieces. Carla prayed for the house to hold together, though oddly, she says, she didn’t think about the likelihood that she could soon be dead.
And then, two or three minutes later, it was over.
Eventually they ventured outside into the dusk. The old oaks in their yard had been uprooted. Their garage still stood, but no longer had a door, and the door it had once had was nowhere to be seen. Almost every house and tree in the whole value had been reduced to sticks. Carla and Carl will have to replace their roof and some windows, and pull up some soaked carpets, and rebuild their fences, but their neighbors all lost pretty much everything.
Thursday morning they took the pickup truck and drove as far as they could up the valley, weaving around fallen trees, trying to find friends and acquaintances. Their best estimate is that eleven of their neighbors were killed. They had driven only a couple of miles from home, on a road both of them drive every day, when they looked around at a completely unrecognizable landscape. No houses, no trees, no signs. “Where are we?” they asked each other.