I knew yesterday was going to be different, the calls started at just after 5 A.M. letting me know my daughter’s school opening would be delayed two hours. A few minutes later a storm rolled through with winds exceeding 80 mph. And this was just the precursor of what was to be a once in a generation weather event. The early morning storm had taken out the power to more than 250,000 homes. That same power supplies radio stations and weather radio networks and cell towers. For many Alabamians, the infrastructure we depend on was taken out like a preemptive military strike on C&C centers by the early morning storms. Communications in and out were cut off to cities like Hackleburg, Phil Campbell, Fayette, Cordova and Parrish in Walker County. We rely on television broadcast to tell us about warnings, but when the power goes out, so does the television. Thus began a perfect storm for yesterday’s tragedy.
Our first concerns here were for our loved ones. Those funnel clouds may be fascinating to people in other areas of the World to watch, but for us, it was like watching our neighborhood being bombed by some unrelenting force. Those who have lived through previous tornadoes have an understanding of their force that video or still pictures or any other media can never convey. Many of those in yesterday’s storm had survived fatal tornadoes before, Hueytown, Pleasant Grove, and Tuscaloosa have experienced fatal storms in the past few years. They had to ask themselves yesterday if it were all happening again. Unfortunately, the storms of yesteryear’s historic proportions were eclipsed. When a strength indicator showed 17.2 on the large tornado, the meteorologists knew that this was beyond anything experienced before. When the previous scale is nearly doubled, the scale has to be readjusted. But losing a loved one is not made any easier by a storm’s historic nature. F1 or F5, it just doesn’t matter. Many people died yesterday in an area where we take pride in our ability to not only predict these storms, their paths and get this information out quickly to all concerned. But when your infrastructure is taken out, where do the warnings come from. Like many others, we found ourselves texting, Facebooking to Iphones and any other means we could think of. My oldest sister is completing a Master’s Degree from the University of Alabama and yesterday was one of the last class sessions before her graduation. She called me from the Full Moon Barbecue Restaurant in Tuscaloosa after class asking whether she should remain there or come to Birmingham. I made a gut call, being in a car is no better than being in a mobile home during a tornado, but I told her to come on and to not stop until she got here. We all breathed a sigh of relief when she opened the front door. Minutes later we were watching the first broadcast following the storm from Tuscaloosa. The broadcast was from what had been the shopping center where the Full Moon was located and it was leveled. We later learned the people inside had survived by going inside the store’s walk-in cooler. That is a life moment. The decision to leave an area with an active tornado was the right one.
All of us here at Extreme How-To were very lucky yesterday. Some of us missed being hit by a mile, some of us were missed by a tornado lifting up and skipping over to the next neighborhood. But all of us were missed and for this we give thanks for our blessings, but we also offer prayers for those who suffered grave losses and for the men and women who heroically give of themselves to reach down into a pile of rubble that minutes earlier had been a beautiful home, hoping to find a hand of someone’s loved one and bringing that person back into the world of the living. To all of you, we offer our thanks. I know in many cases the missing you are looking for are also your loved ones and many of you have suffered losses of your own, but you continue to do your job because you are a professional and you are the missing persons last best hope. Godspeed to all of you.
To the people affected by yesterday’s tornadoes, we know you will come back as you have before. And just as we learned from our earlier tragic experiences, we will also learn from this one. When we rebuild, we will rebuild stronger homes. Our warning systems need redundancies, funding will come easier now. Weather radios have been distributed to many thousands of Alabama citizens this spring. A system should be in place that kicks in when the primary transmission system is knocked out or we will again face the same situation as yesterday.
For those of us who are part of the home improvement industry, we need to take a look at what construction offers better survivability in these storms. The little below ground storm shelters that dot the rural landscape may seem like eyesores, but they work. A well reinforced below grade room, usually made of reinforced concrete is what most of us have come to believe in. These are not easy retrofits for existing construction or homes built on slabs. But many of the areas affected yesterday will be starting with clean slates as the houses that were there are no longer. Adding a safe room designed to withstand high winds and walls designed to fend off debris may have seemed like a luxury yesterday, but today it seems not such a far fetched idea. I don’t know that building a tornado proof house is feasible, much less affordable. But incorporating a below grade concrete enclosure into new homes is. We have also seen the fiberglass models of such storm shelters. I would vent it and bury it below grade.