Monday, August 24, 2009

Clarifying the Tornado: Part One

It was a typical Saturday morning on our “suitcase campus”.

In a town with nothing much to do, and with a majority of the student body’s hometowns within driving distance of the university, there seemed to be a mass exodus on the weekends. Blame it on the institutional feel of the dorm rooms, the dry status of the county, or the overarching belief in the value of family, but it seemed for college-aged residents of Arkadelphia there truly was no place like home.

I loved Saturdays.

I loved the quiet, secluded feel the campus possessed.

I loved having so much space to myself, and perhaps a smattering of other friends.

On this particular Saturday, most of my suitemates had actually remained on campus, and several friends would be returning soon from a choir competition. I rolled lazily out of bed, and was greeted by a friend bounding through the door of our suite, clad in running shorts and a tank top, proclaiming the wonders of an unusually warm day at the tail end of winter.

Rather than enjoying the premature spring weather, I wandered down to the deserted library to sit between my favorite stacks and browse through a bit of non-required reading. I was flipping through one of my selections, back leaning against a bookcase, when the sirens began blaring.

While I hadn’t bothered to check the Weather Channel before leaving the dorm, the stale scent of the air and the slightly looming clouds were enough to prompt me to toss my umbrella over my wrist as I headed out the door. And not even the sudden interruption of my reading by tornado sirens startled me, as Arkansas is prone to random acts of severe weather. So as the library staff began directing students into the basement, I slipped unnoticed out of the front doors, opened my umbrella, and headed back to the comfort of my dorm.

Friends who saw me walking across campus would tell me later that they couldn’t believe I had voluntarily ventured out into such weather. If I had it to do over, I suppose I would do it again, seeing as neither the wind nor the rain were particularly heavy at that point.

Controlled chaos greeted me back in the dorm, as the Resident Assistants worked to gather all of the girls into the lower hallways and away from the glass lobby doors. The Hall Director was out of town, and had not left keys to the basement for any of the RA’s. Our suite was on the ground floor and, not being inclined to take sirens too seriously, a few of us chose to sit on the back of our couch, and watch out the window as the winds swayed trees, made patterns in the rain puddles, and stirred up the occasional debris.

Then we heard a siren of a different sort.

The siren often described on newscasts, covering the aftermath of a storm.

The siren sounded reminiscent of the train that ran through town, though closer and foreboding.

When the winds died down, we filtered out to the lobby to get a better look around. Opening the double glass doors, we took in the views of scattered limbs and strewn debris across the parking lots and lawns of campus. Residents returning from the choir competition told stories of pulling their cars off to the shoulder as pieces trees and scrap metal flew across the road. One person called from the Dollar General Store downtown to say the windows had busted out. Intrigued, we piled in a car to head downtown.

We made it only one block before we had to pull the car over and park.

Crawling out of the vehicle to stand in the middle of the road, we stared silently.

What little had comprised Downtown Arkadelphia to begin with, had now been leveled.

As the shock of the devastation settled into a manageable intensity, we began to move toward the damage, becoming intent upon helping in any way possible. We slowly realized that we were surrounded by a community of people recognizing what had happened, and working to organize a response. As we set to work, clearing the roadways in an effort to allow emergency vehicles through, we took in the sights and sounds.

The sounds were limited.

Amidst the chainsaws hacking away at trees too large to simply lift and toss, and voices calling out instructions, the town was eerily silent.

The sights were surreal.

A car in the bank drive-through with a large plank wedged through the front window, thankfully abandoned by the passengers before the vehicle was impaled; gaping holes where stores had once stood; homes resembling dollhouses with entire sides removed.

We moved steadily through the streets, tossing aside tree limbs as we went, looking for a space where we would be of the most help. We were near the edge of town when we came upon the nursing home, a flurry of activity in its parking lot. The roof was caving in as staff and volunteers worked to get residents and essential supplies out of the building. Some residents could walk, but many were confined to beds and wheelchairs. People worked inside, collecting items and passing them through windows, carefully avoiding the remaining shards of glass around the frames. Others worked outside, calming disoriented residents.

All of the residents had been removed, and I had been asked to gather additional blankets from the back, when I heard the news. A small radio rested on a table in the supply room, and the reporter’s voice was an ominous presence in the vacant wing. I was standing in this abandoned space, arms full of itchy blankets, listening to the news that a similar tornado had touched down in my neighborhood in Little Rock.

I passed the blankets carefully through a shattered window, crawled out after them, and ran through the wreckage back to campus to call home.


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