Storms teach us what really matters

Published 1:48 am Saturday, September 20, 2014

Somewhere in our house is a white envelope with a half-dozen or so photographs.

It’s been at least a few years since I’ve seen them, but this week, I found myself going through boxes, albums and drawers like a mad woman in a desperate attempt to find them.

Wherever they are, they are safe, and I don’t really need them to remember how our house looked on the morning after Hurricane Ivan, 10 years ago this week.

Something woke me from a very sound sleep, and immediately, I knew: We needed to move to the center of the house. In a lifetime, I’d never before felt the need to do this.

Five minutes later, something happened. We could feel the suction from both ends of the hallway, and we knew our house had been compromised in some way. But it would be long hours before we would understand exactly what happened and how serious the damage was.

If only I could sleep now as long as that night felt. As I listened to what I now know was tornadoes, I was not afraid I would die in the storm. But I was so worried that I would have to fight my way out of a pile of debris, I wore good walking shoes all night. Stepping on a nail was a problem I didn’t need.

When morning came, there was no power and no passage. Massive downed pines blocked driveways and streets. All of our neighbors had stories similar to ours.

In restrospect, and through the prism of Katrina, what happened to South Alabama then wasn’t so bad. But those of us who lived it know that it changed a community we loved – and us – for a lifetime.

From the beginning, I could talk dry-eyed about the damage. But when I think of the people who helped us in the aftermath, I still get teary-eyed. I am in awe of people like my brother Chris, who arrived when there was still no power in town and it was so dark Honey had to line the driveway with candles. Two days later, he had single-handedly removed a huge pine from our house, and left us safely dried in.

I think of my mother, who hauled tons of rained-upon clothes home with her to prevent mildew, for it would be many days before we had power again.

I think of my amazing friend Mary Helen, insisting that we share the full meal – yes, vegetables and all – she cooked on the grill; of finding my Elba friends feeding tired utility crews; of those from the nearby Mennonite community who showed up with chain saws, took trees off of houses, and quickly moved on to help the next person.

That morning, 10 years ago, I remember being most thankful that I could stand up and walk out of my badly damaged house.

I have learned that tragedies and great loss give you an understanding way down in your gut of what truly matters. I try to remember that so that I won’t need an object lesson again.