A message for Lee County from a Tuscaloosa survivor: You will be brave after the storm

Tuscaloosa County, Alabama storm, June 16, 2023

This originally appeared March 6, 2019 on al.com

Lee County, I will tell you what I wrote in the diary I keep for my daughter. I have kept it since before her birth. June 15, 2011, the first time I was able to write in it after an EF-4 multiple vortex tornado destroyed our home and lives:

“April 27 you were a very brave girl,” I wrote to my then 8-year-old. “You got to be inside of a tornado and stood up to it like the strong girl you are … I held onto you for dear life, like I always will.”

Lee County, I will tell you what I told the people of Moore, Okla., after a 2013 tornado destroyed their city: Hope will find you.

I know it’s hard to believe now. I know. Believe me, I do.

Things will be hard. It will be soul-crushing at times. But it will get better. It can.

I’ve written 12 posts about the April 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado over the years. How my daughter and I, huddled together holding onto a steel bar bolted to the floor of the closet, somehow survived. How I have survivor’s guilt. How I have PTSD. How we lost so much more than just belongings that day.

This will be post number 13, yet it’s about a different tornado. Number 13 lives up to its reputation as an unlucky number for Lee County.

Lee County, as you pick up the rubble of your lives and sift through memories, tornado survivors like me know you need more than well wishes, thoughts and prayers. You need action.

As we remember the 23 victims of the tornado, we help the survivors.

It’s important that people in Lee County are allowed to grieve and process in their own way, in their own time. For some, that may be humor. For others, that may be quiet reflection. They need no judgment. They need understanding. They need blood donations and cash.

As I write this, almost eight years since my own tornado nightmare, I stay one step removed. If I travel too far back in my memory, I won’t be able to bear it.

Lee County, I write while my daughter takes a sketch comedy writing class in the next room. She, a person I cannot live without, has moved on. Yet I had to consider – for five minutes in April, 2011 – living without her. Also that she may have to live without me. That moment as a parent never left me.

“Hold on as tight as you can,” I told her as her teddy bear was crushed beneath our weight.

Yet as the thunderous roar approached – a sound I didn’t know it was possible for my ears to withstand – I knew that I might have no control over that. I flashed forward to her high school graduation or wedding without me. Or her finding my body and the irreparable damage it would cause. All within a few seconds before it hit.

After that tornado I was dumbfounded that a lie had been perpetuated to me. That, even in a basement, a person could be hurt, injured or killed in a tornado, which is why the only truly safe place is a FEMA-approved safe room.

Maybe you feel the same way, Lee County?

I still cannot visit my old neighborhood. I scroll quickly through social media posts because I cannot watch video of any tornado. When bad weather approaches, I know it days before and I don’t simply worry. My anxiety reaches a fever pitch. I apologize to people for being so nervous. Then, I reach out to other survivors because they know. They understand.

I take some solace that when Lee County families were interviewed by various media outlets they said that lessons learned from the 2011 tornadoes helped save their lives. As Southerners, we know this tornado won’t be the last one. The winds will keep coming. Mother Nature is the drunk second cousin at the family reunion, who crashes in when we least expect it. But she always comes back, uninvited.

So I have come this far and, Lee County, so have you. One day at a time.

We have learned some lessons, yet others remain elusive because people eventually stop listening to us, to those who have lived through similar situations. It will happen to you too. Until the next one.

Those unlearned lessons are buried beneath the debris of our hearts.

The truth is, sometimes circumstances are too specific to prevent a tornado death or injury. Yet other times they are not. In California buildings are built to earthquake code. I like to think that in the future in the South, everyone builds a safe room in every home and business. Why would we not?

Other cities learn and change accordingly. For example, the only building code in the country that has tornadoes as one of its design criteria is in Moore, Okla. They learned and changed the way things are done. They added design concepts to their building codes.

Why doesn’t every city in the South do this? Politics. Building codes are adopted by individual communities.

Yet Lee County, there is hope. Let me show you where I found it.

● Immediately after the tornado I found it in complete strangers who showed up on my lawn, as well as old friends I had not seen in 20 years. They had chainsaws and blankets and were ready to help.

● One engineer who worked in Moore, Okla. and Tuscaloosa after both tornadoes told me just today that designing for tornadoes is an up-and-coming feature, which more communities will start adopting.

● Since 2011, Alabama became the only state in the nation to pass legislation that mandates safe rooms in new schools. We are protecting our children. This settles me.

I have hope, Lee County, and I think you will too when I tell you the main reasons, and they are the best reasons of all.

Their names are Cassy and Chelsea and Ashley. These women I did not know before the tornado but now they bring me hope and laughter and joy. One lost a best friend, one was paralyzed from the waist down before years of a grueling process of learning to walk again. One lost her daughter and, Lee County, she’s the one I think of the most. She brings me hope because if she can do it then so can I. So can you.

These strong women have become, like my daughter, survivors. Yet they are not victims and you won’t be either. You will be brave in the storm.

This Ash Wednesday the Biblical book of Matthew offers us all lessons in hope.

“And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded upon a rock.”

There is hope, Lee County. I am here, on the other side, to tell you that it will get better. You were brave. You got to be on the inside of a tornado and stood up to it.

> Here are all of Meredith’s columns on the Tuscaloosa tornado.

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