When a tornado comes

Author’s Note: While most of my writing is about more effective communication and how that can improve our work and life, I am taking a personal liberty and writing about my thoughts about life during and after the recent deadly tornadoes here in Alabama.

I grew up and live in the South. Alabama to be specific. Deadly tornadoes are a fact of life here, just as earthquakes are California and blizzards in New England. Over the years of our lives, we all know someone killed by a tornado. Or at least we know someone that knows someone.

Unlike a hurricane, circumstances can lead many people to have nowhere safe to hide when a particularly strong twister comes. Maybe it will hit you, maybe it won’t. If you are not underground, you cannot be sure you’ll survive. It is the world we live in. We accept it. It is our normal.

When a particularly powerful tornado comes, a few lives are drastically changed forever. And a few more lives are changed for a handful of days. Eventually, everyone else moves along in life, the tornado becoming just one of those things that “happened” to someone else.

On the afternoon and evening of Wednesday April 27, 2011, tornadoes “happened” and changed lives again. This time on a grand scale, on live television, and with advance warning. We sat in our homes and watched towns we know get ripped apart, knowing that we were watching some of our neighbors die and others lose all the possessions they own. We watched knowing we were in a likely path of the very same tornado, or in the path of one of the other tornadoes that now filled the local television news’ radar screen.

Where else in the world can you watch your potential killer on television as he drives full speed to your house? And do you know what you do when this happens? You watch. You listen. You wait. You hold flashlights and radios, ready to go your “safe place” that the television meteorologists keep explaining. You may think about your neighbors but there will be more time for that later. Now you just wait. Except for special shelters, there is really no place to go that is much safer, so there is nowhere to run. For most, it is surprisingly calm and surreal. We know the drill here in the South. The only surprise here this time was the magnitude.

Phil Campbell AL, April 2011. (c) John R. PhillipsOn his way home that evening from work, my brother John was in the town of Phil Campbell, Alabama within an hour of a tornado that ripped that town apart. More than twenty-five people were killed. The roads were blocked for miles and he would soon be helping a coworker search for his wife in the dark.

Later, he shared with me stories of people walking in the true blackness, their homes completely gone, their family missing or dead. Where could they look, were they okay, what should they do? For many in Phil Campbell, and other parts of Alabama, the events of the night were first a stunning shock, then a horror of a scale and depth most of us will thankfully never know.

The next day, John shared stories of neighbors that returned to their home to recover belongings and coming back with nothing. Absolutely nothing. Everything was either completely gone or damaged beyond any reason to keep it. Just the empty bags they had taken with them, hoping to return with something personal or useful. Sadly, the phrase “they were left with nothing but the clothes on their back” is not always an exaggeration.

We all read the stories in the news and watch the stories on television. I would suggest that unless you stop and consider and imagine the fear, panic, and reality of these events, you can not understand the stories from this town.

My wife and I were in nearby Hackleburg on the following Saturday. It is near Phil Campbell and has little more than a thousand residents. Three days had passed and parts of this town were in recovery mode while others were still searching for the missing. Still. It was that bad.

Seeing the town and the highway into town, it was obvious why the search efforts were so challenging. While this is a rural area with some modest terrain, this is not a terrain problem. It was a rubble and destruction problem. The tornado didn’t just cross the long state highway into Hackleburg, it ran for miles down that highway, destroying homes on either side, dumping trees, cars, and shredded homes on the roadway like monster lawnmower clippings.

Not to be overly graphic, but to understand the power of an EF5 tornado such as the one that ripped apart Hackleburg, imagine a huge, half-mile wide blender. Put your home, your cars and all you have and love into that blender. Turn it on high, at speeds over 200 mph, until everything is chopped up and then, while it is still running on high, remove the lid and let it all fling out across the land. That is an EF5 tornado. If you are directly in it and not underground, you likely don’t survive. If you are on the edge and the high-speed blast of discarded debris does not kill you, you might make it. Maybe.

I’ve seen journalist after journalist attempt to explain the damage, the pain, the horror, the help, the community spirit, and life after such a disaster and after this particular day. For the most part, these journalists get the words and sentences right. They are very accurate in many of their details. They share human stories of pain, survival, compassion, and strength.

But just as I often write about how important perspective is to understanding a message, I find these professional journalists have the same perspective problem when sharing deep raw emotions and stories through their words. It is not from lack of effort, of accuracy, or of skill. It is not from a lack of caring. It is an audience problem. We are jaded to words like horror, panic, disaster, destruction, and death. It fills our daily news and we have become really good at minimizing bad news unless it is something in our reality we cannot ignore.

I know journalists will continue to share this story until they move on to the next unfortunate event in another place. They will do their best and once the story is no longer about us, we too will casually ignore the news of the next disaster the way many ignore us now. And I understand. Life goes on and life is too short to focus on everyone else’s misfortune. We all live in different worlds.

Hackleburg, Phil Campbell, and many other towns in the South will display visible scars on the landscape for many years to come. And there will be hidden scars for just as long. It is how our world works when a tornado comes.


The author, Glenn S. Phillips, is a native of Bear Creek, Alabama, the town closest to Hackleburg and Phil Campbell, Alabama. He now works as a business consultant, author, and speaker.

(c) Copyright 2011 by Glenn S. Phillips. All Rights Reserved. May be reproduced with credit to author and link to nerdtoenglish.com. Photograph (c) Copyright 2011 by John. R. Phillips. All Rights Reserved.


About the Author

Glenn S. Phillips works with leaders who want to leverage technology and understand risks within. An author and blogger, Glenn is often quoted in national media, plays a really ugly tuba (it even has a bullet hole) and is a fan of dark chocolate and great puns.