His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is His path on the wings of the storm.
I like to order my life in sync with the Church calendar. During Lent, I am happy to be somber and sober, attentive to the darkness and brokenness of the world, aware of sin and its destructive effects. That wasn’t hard this year, with a tsunami in Japan and war in Libya. But during Easter, I am determined to look on the bright side, to gaze about me and see that Christ is making all things new, that life is triumphing over death and light over darkness. I will not be distracted by doom or gloom in the headlines, for Christ is risen!
But this week came a shattering reminder that we are still very much in the “not yet” of redemption’s already/not yet dialectic, a reminder that our world is still broken, that “the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.” All through the day and night of Wednesday, April 27th, massive storms tore unprecedented paths of destruction across the American South. The state of Alabama was blitzed unrelentingly by countless tornadoes, almost all of them, it seemed, enormous and deadly. In dozens of towns and cities, residents awoke Thursday morning to heaps of rubble and corpses.
After the Japanese earthquake, I remarked on what a reminder it was of man’s smallness and impotence before God’s works in nature. This was an equally powerful reminder. Just as Japan has unprecedented technological preparedness for earthquakes, so does the US for tornadoes. Our entire arsenal was on display during the outbreak Wednesday–not a single tornado, so far as I am aware, was not detected and announced beforehand by detailed warnings and accurate forecasts of its path. Indeed, days before, the Storm Prediction Center had warned of a high risk of severe storms and tornadoes in the region from Monday through Wednesday. Monday and Tuesday saw a remarkable outbreak of dozens of tornadoes–but deaths and injuries were minimal thanks to excellent warnings and relatively small tornados in general. But for Wednesday, the highest level of alert was announced for Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Georgia was set. Area meteorologists wrote ominously in their forecast discussions of atmospheric instability levels higher than they’d ever seen, and a perfect combination of factors for devastating storms.
The day started off with a slew of powerful storms and small tornadoes across the region, a carry-over from the storms of the night before. This was a bad sign, since most storms form in the afternoon and evening and few survive to see the dawn. Major cities Chattanooga and Huntsville were hammered repeatedly. Then in early afternoon, the real storms cranked up over Mississippi. In no time, several of them were exhibiting “hook echos” on radar, a telltale sign of a strong tornado, and one that is rarely clearly visible except on hi-res radars. But by mid-afternoon, the vicious-looking hooks were everywhere, seemingly on every storm. Northern Alabama was painted red with tornado warnings, and several of these were “tornado emergency” warnings, reserved only for rare cases of powerful tornados hitting populated areas. I knew it was going to be a long night, and was planning to get up after a very brief sleep to do some extra work through the night and follow the unfolding disaster.
I asked my wife if I could check on the status of things for five minutes before heading to bed. She grudgingly agreed. I pulled up a live broadcast from Tuscaloosa, AL, and right before my eyes a monster tornado swirled into view, headed straight for the city. This was the sort of twister you might see in a disaster movie, or in a rare storm chaser video from the Great Plains. But it was headed for a monster city. I called my wife over, and we both watched in horror as it swirled through the southern half of the town, growing to almost a mile in diameter. Finally tearing ourselves away, we went to bed. Knowing that the storm was headed for Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city, however, I got up again after a restless half hour. It’s 50 miles from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham; most tornadoes–even the strongest ones–don’t last more than a couple dozen miles, and this one had already been on the ground for a while before hitting Tuscaloosa. So I figured Birmingham would be alright, but who knew? tonight was no ordinary night. I went back to my computer and opened up the live broadcast. Deja vu, only worse. A camera mounted in downtown Birmingham was looking west, and into sight loomed a great black mass–no longer a funnel or a pillar of cloud, this was now so wide you could hardly see the edges. A mile and a half in diameter, they said, but it may as well have been ten miles. “Apocalyptic” was the only adjective I could think of–this kind of tornado only existed in movies, not real life, and this one was headed right into the city. I called Rachel out of bed again, and we both watched as it curled north around downtown, devouring whole suburbs. She went back to bed but I stayed, watching as the newscasters struggled in vain to juggle updates regarding the half-dozen major tornadoes on the ground in the area and the damage reports now streaming in from Tuscaloosa and the Birmingham suburbs. First images and video clips revealed scenes that looked like Hiroshima. A reporter on the phone from the ironically named Birmingham suburb of Pleasant Grove told of people staggering about with missing limbs, of police calling on every able-bodied man to help pull the dead and dying out of the rubble. At that, I had to go lie down. I felt sick.
I watch natural disasters a lot. I get something of a high out of it, I have to say. It’s not that I want people to die, of course, but I have a soft spot for melodrama. It’s why I’ve always liked history so much, I think. The biggest battle ever. The most improbable victory, the tragic downfall, the sudden turn of fortune that defies all explanation. In times such as ours, dominated by bickering and banality, with so much of the world “disenchanted” by science, it is those few remaining natural forces beyond our control and comprehension that still provide such epic and unpredictable story-lines. So, despite myself, and my genuine feelings of worry and concern, excitement is usually my dominant emotion during a tornado, blizzard, or hurricane. If it gets serious or shocking enough, excitement may be replaced by numbness. And perhaps, if it’s bad enough, numbness gives way to a sickening sinking feeling. That’s happened to me only a precious few times; the only occasion I recall distinctly was when Hurricane Katrina took dead aim on New Orleans as a Cat. 5. But that happened Wednesday night.
When I returned to my computer, the Tuscaloosa Terror was still whirling on. Surveys are still ongoing to confirm the duration of that twister, but it seems clear that it was on the ground for at least 130 miles from eastern Mississippi to northeast of Birmingham. It may have been much longer, however, for the storm, with its wicked hook echo and its tornado warning, kept on going and going, reports of devastation following it at regular intervals, through eastern Alabama, past Rome, Ga, north of Atlanta, and on into the mountains. Homes were destroyed in Rabun, near the north Carolina border, and then over the border near Franklin. A 400-mile path of destruction, through four states–truly unprecedented. And there were dozens more, many of them huge and destructive and deadly enough to guarantee national headlines on any other day, but almost entirely forgotten this time. Smithville, MS was levelled by an EF-5, the most powerful category–fire hydrants ripped out of the earth; where brick homes had once been, now mere blank foundation slabs. In Ringgold, GA, a 3-story motel was flattened by an EF-4, with great loss of life. Huntsville was in shambles, an EF-4 or EF-5, plus several smaller tornadoes, having torn through its environs. Hackleburg, Cullmann, and Phil Mitchell, towns in Alabama, were no more. East Tennessee was ravaged. Twisters had also hit Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, New York, Virginia. Across Alabama, people in communities themselves unscatched were picking up debris in their yards from towns 50 miles away. Hundreds are dead–no one knows how many; thousands are maimed and injured. Just to put that in perspective: no tornado outbreak has killed more than 100 people since 1974, and back then, the only way we could detect tornadoes was if someone saw them on the ground–nowadays, we can detect on radar if a storm is even thinking about putting down a tornado and if so, precisely where. But when a storm can peel up asphalt and reduce mature trees to splinters, there’s a limit to what any warnings can accomplish–witnesses in Birmingham spoke of people being killed in their underground basement shelters.
O God, merciful and compassionate, who art ever ready to hear the prayers of those who put their trust in thee; Graciously hearken to those who call upon thee, grant them thy help in this their need; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.