Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Anniversary- Part II

Yesterday's post left off as we were trying to get back into town after the tornado hit. By now, it was about 11:15 PM. As the men worked on moving trees, more and more vehicles and people showed up trying to break a path into town. One guy, whose kids we had taught in school, was trying to get across the road and the railroad tracks to the house of his 87 year old mother. (We would later find out that her entire house was gone, but she rode out the storm under the stairs of her basement.) K. had to go to the bathroom so bad (nerves?) that a lady who lived on the edge of town walked her to their house to use the restroom by flashlight. A former student and now colleague of the Mr. had called several times around the time the tornado hit, wanting coach (the Mr.) to check on his mom. He hadn't realized we were returning from Colorado. He was panicked, but had told us not to come into town through the main entrance--they had already closed it. Now he arrived at the west entrance and helped to clear the path.

Finally, they managed to get one lane open so the ambulance and power and light trucks that were waiting could get into town. We got into vehicles and finally had our chance to see the town. It was pitch dark, but even in the darkness--we knew it was bad. The high school where I had taught for 26 years was on the left side of the road. I couldn't believe the devastation. We made it to the house of the former student's mom. His mom's two story house, which sat across from the main entrance of our high school, had been lifted and moved about 12 feet into the side of the limestone church that sat beside her. His mom had survived under the basement stairs of her house. She was sitting in the back of the ambulance by the time we arrived. My husband got out to inquire about what people knew and what was needed. I called my Dad to let him know were fine, but the town wasn't. The girls and I sat in silence in the car, still shaking. Occasionally a cell phone would ring and we'd answer and repeat what we knew. We were sitting on the street looking at the pile of stone that had once been our high school auditorium.

People had struggled out of destroyed homes and were now walking the streets to safe locations. Most were in pajamas or other state of undress. They looked like refugees, and in a way--they were. A former student and his wife were walking down the street with their newborn baby wrapped in his letter jacket. (I later learned that they had just gotten home from the hospital that day.) I sat in shock. I didn't know what to do. Our home was OK, but I wasn't even sure we could get there. We were a town of zombies; no one knowing what to do next. The town had an odor of gas and a strong smell of electrical heat. Thankfully, city employees were already shutting off gas lines and trying to move electrical lines. House to house searches were beginning to determine casualties and structural safety.

We finally made our way through town to our house by driving through a couple of yards to avoid trees. Our house looked exactly the same. The fact that it looked no different was a shock at that point. Since we had no power, we convinced K & L to go on to their house 30 minutes away. The tornado had jumped over the next town, but had done some damage in their town, too. They left reluctantly, swearing they would be back as soon as they could. We talked to neighbors on the streets and after checking to make sure some of the older neighbors were OK, we decided to try to get some sleep. It was a wasted effort.

At the first light, we took off on foot to see our town. I grabbed my camera and felt incredibly guilty taking pictures of the horror. A colleague, the high school journalism teacher, was already at the high school with his video camera when we arrived. He was right when he said, "There isn't much we can do now but document what happened." Now it was light enough to take pictures of what we had seen the night before...and to see the rest of the town. We started at the high school, since that is where we had entered town the night before. It wasn't any better in daylight.

This was our high school art department, which was one of the first things we had seen when we entered town.
This was my room at our high school. All the windows and skylights were gone. Most of the 87 year old lady's house was on top of this wing of our school.
This was another room on the opposite wing of the high school. The American flag was still flying and things were still on the teacher's desk, but the entire outer wall was gone.
Yes, that is the flag pole at the entry to our school. I'm not sure humans could have bent it like that.

This was the auditorium that we had seen the night before. The speakers for the sound system were still suspended in mid air. Amazingly, a concert grand piano was salvaged from under one part of the collapsed roof. We had seen the damage at the high school the night before and seeing it in daylight didn't make it easier, but now we were ready to head into the residential part of our town.
One of the first things we saw was the local funeral home. There were no funerals scheduled, so these coffins were from their storeroom. (I didn't get the photo of the men walking the empty caskets down the street later that day, hauling the ones that could be salvaged to another storage location.)
Nothing could prepare me for the ruined homes. A colleague lived here. Eventually, I would go upstairs in their "doll" house, trying to help his teenage daughter recover anything from her former room.
Fifty-four homes were destroyed. This one still had figurines sitting on a shelf, even though the house had no roof or windows. This part of town was hit especially hard. And this neighborhood was where we would learn the only fatality had occurred--a former student who was hit by flying debris.

As we got further into town, we saw our District Central Office. The Elementary School and Middle School looked no better. A man was pinned in his vehicle here and would eventually have his arm amputated.

You can see the marks that the search teams put on houses to show that they had been searched and what they had found. Each mark meant something. Every home in town, damaged or not, had marks spray painted on them. Even a year later, some homes still bear their markings. They weren't easy to remove.
As we walked back through town, we went by our church parsonage. The pastor and his wife had gone to the basement, but thought it was clear and went back upstairs. They survived on the main level, even though all four outer brick walls of the home were destroyed.
And this was our church. Four churches were destroyed, including one that had been on the National Registry of Historical places.
But our altar cross still stood. That cross became a sign of hope to many of us. There had been a decorative stone wall behind it. I have kicked myself for not getting a picture (or I took one and it didn't turn out?) of the wall. It was flat on the ground, laid out like someone had put it together like a jigsaw puzzle. There wasn't a stone out of place.
With the coming of the light, the hard work was about to begin. Volunteers, news crews, and dignitaries began pouring into town. Helicopters were flying over almost constantly. Wrist bands had to be used to identify who could enter town. Our phone was constantly ringing with people wanting to know if we were OK and what they could do. K & L were desperate to get back into their hometown. We didn't have electricity or water, so they brought ice, batteries, and bottled water to us. We had to meet them at one of the security points before they could enter. We all walked the town together and listened to stories, watched our shell-shocked townspeople viewing the devastation, and waited until law enforcement allowed work to begin. As tired as we were, we couldn't stay away from the devastation. As much as we may have wanted to stay in our home, close our eyes and plug our ears to it all, we just couldn't. We had no idea what was in store for the days and weeks ahead. We only knew that our little town would never be the same.
To be continued


Puna said...

My gosh Mrs. E, it looks like a scene out of a movie. So surreal. Thank God there were no kids in that school. The cross, a sign of hope...

Mrs. E said...

Puna, I can't tell you how many times I have been grateful that people were in their own homes. If we had been in school--well, the chaos was bad enough. I can't imagine how frantic families would have been to find each other.

margie said...

such devastation!

elk said...

wow goose bumps at this moment ...

Julie M. Lucas said...

Thanks for posting the photo of my parents reminds me how blessed we are and how much better off they are.

P.S. My bra was on that flag pole outside the school...

Mrs. E said...

Oh, Jules!! You make me laugh! And I thought of how nice your parents house looked the other night. A year ago, I would never have dreamed it would ever look normal again!

Alicia said...

I can't believe it's been a year... I feel so far from the scene and in my mind, I cannot imagine the town in the state it was in a year ago and now. Devastating. All the work done in the last year, all the work to be done to continue to rebuild. The town is changed forever. Thanks for sharing your story, your photos.

2Thinks said...

This is an incredible story. "We were like zombies- nobody knowing what to do next." Then the picture of the cross still standing. That part gave me a chill of amazing grace. Out of the rubble, He saved me! The only identifying I can do with this tornado event.

You have lived through some very scary stuff, Mrs. E. Thanks for sharing your perspective on it all here.

Looking forward to part III.


Gayle said...

I can't imagine how painful this must have been for the people in your town. Your photos of the devastation are so sad, but the cross still standing is beautiful.