On February 5, 2008, an EF-4 tornado blew straight through Union University. I was on campus that night, and the experience remains the one time in my life that I legitimately feared I was about to die. Thirteen students were trapped in the rubble, and fifty-one were taken to the hospital. The scope of the devastation was enormous, but God, for whatever reason, kept us safe. Every February 5th I try to take time to acknowledge what happened so that I remember both the brevity of life and the protection of God. The words that follow (with a few grammatical corrections) are what I wrote in a blog post a couple days after the tornado hit.
Around 6:30 the tornado sirens started going off, but we didn’t pay any attention. That happens often, living in Tennessee, and I was planning on starting my homework while the roomies watched American Idol. Brittany Cox ran over to our room through the rain and sirens, and we were just sitting around chilling. Then Whitney’s phone rang, and she all of a sudden said, “We’re leaving, come on!”
I assumed we were going to Ashley’s house, because that seemed safe, and I don’t know what I was thinking. So I took my time and turned off my computer in case of bad weather, shut off lights, grabbed my statistics book and my coat, and followed my impatient friends out the door. Silly stupid me–apparently the answer to my “what is the one thing you would save in a disaster?” is my stats book.
Instead of turning toward the parking lot, we went across the courtyard to a bottom floor Dodd room. I found out it was Sara Beth who had called, saying we should probably leave in case our room flooded again. We joined ten other girls in the Dodd room, and we sat around watching the storm move in on TV. Some more girls came in, until there were around 20 of us. I started doing my homework when someone recommended moving next door to a windowless room. We grabbed our stuff and relocated.
The new Dodd room was uninhabited, so we sat around and used Whitney’s texts with friends to keep us updated. After a couple minutes Bethany, RA that she is, got a call and ordered us into the bathroom. Whitney and Jo were in the bathtub with a couple other girls, and Brittany and I sat on the edge of it, the other girls crammed in around us.
I would like to mention that this whole time I was convinced this was over-exaggerated Union worry. I did not in the least think we were going to be in a tornado.
Someone had mentioned that drains will start sucking if a tornado is coming, and literally just one minute after we’d all gotten into the bathroom, I heard this weird sucking noise. It was at that moment that my heart started racing, and I thought, “Oh crap, I was wrong, I was so so wrong.” And then the noise got deafening, and I felt wind and rain on my back. My face was buried in Brittany’s back, and everyone was clutching at each other. I don’t know if people screamed. I don’t know if I screamed. It was too loud.
I was so sure we were going to die. I thought the entire second story had been ripped up. I was positive the pulling wind I felt was going to lift me out of the bathroom and tear me limb from limb. I worried I was going to pee my pants, and mainly I held on to Brittany, because I was not getting sucked out of that bathroom alone.
After a couple minutes the noise calmed down, so I tried to look up. My eyes stung and when I moved, stuff started falling off of me. There was insulation and wood and dust all over us. I finally got a glimpse, and where the bathtub wall ends, about five feet up, there was nothing. The ceiling was there, but near the outside wall it was gone, with pipes exposed, and the wall above the bathtub was gone. I could see the sky, and a tree. My heart would not calm down.
Jo was sobbing beside me, and one girl in the bathtub was scrambling to get out, trying to get her laptop out of the water. Some girls calmed her down, saying that wasn’t important. Everyone started freaking out, talking and crying. I just buried my face in Brittany’s back again. Then one girl started singing Amazing Grace, and Whitney joined in super loud and off key, and I sang quietly. It wasn’t until “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will bring me home” that I calmed and thought “I love this school.” Seriously, where else would you be in a disaster with a bunch of strangers, and find strength in singing a hymn?
Bethany let us out of the bathroom after a couple minutes, and the room was in shambles. The windows were blown in and the blinds all messed up. The table was torn apart and the cushions scattered around. The doors to the rooms, which had been locked shut, were all open. I didn’t look for my stuff, and I so so wish I’d grabbed my purse. Jo pointed to the kitchen, which shares the same exterior wall as the bathroom, and the wall was completely gone. You could walk through the kitchen to the outdoors. And we were crouched right next to that wall. Thank goodness for solid bathtubs.
Someone recommended checking out the room we’d been in first, to see if that bathroom were still intact, in case something else came our way. I was about to head out the door when a sopping wet Whitney pulled me back and said, “Don’t leave until the other door is open.” Bethany got the room unlocked and we ran inside, pushing and generally acting a little less crazy than a mob.
The girls who lived there were kind of overwhelmed, because it was just as messed up as the other room, only this time it was their things that were strewn around. One girl brought out her shoe tree, because several girls were only wearing socks and there was glass all over the floor.
All of a sudden someone knocked on the door and yelled, “Get out! Get out! Get to the commons, under the stairs!” My brain just sighed and thought ‘what now?’ but with an exclamation point too, because it was scary. I lost Whitney and Jo, so when I got out of the room I paused and heard someone say ‘gas leak.’ That set me off panicking again, so I ran across the sewage-y courtyard, but my shoe came partially off, so I had to limp run, and I didn’t know where my friends were, and I was sure I was either going to blow up or get sucked away.
We got to the commons along with 50 other girls, and we hectically climbed over the the stair railing and dropped to safety. Probably 40 girls were crammed under there, and I was about to shoot some of them who were talking loudly on their cell phones while RAs were yelling at us to give us instructions.
I was calm again at this point, because it was over. Surely it was over. We stayed there, lacking oxygen, for maybe fifteen minutes. Then someone decided we needed to go to White Hall. We climbed out of the stairwell and waited for everyone like good lil’ cattle, then began our Bataan Death March across campus.
Jo and I walked together, holding hands, and thank goodness I was with someone who could joke. We talked about how I could make my Gender & Sexuality project about how many girls/girls held hands and how many guys/guys held hands in the wake of trauma. Some girl was sobbing behind us, so we grabbed her and I held her hands as we walked. Turned out her name was Elizabeth, but I never really saw her face.
Walking out of McAfee was crazy. The light post in the courtyard was on the ground, the top shattered. Dodd’s walls were all over the ground, and some guys had made a way through the debris and bricks, directing us through with flashlights. It was such a disaster area.
And then we walked past Hurt. Oh my gosh, it took my breath away. Some of the buildings were leveled to the ground, and almost all of them were missing walls so that we could see into people’s rooms. That got my panic back up, because looking at the devastation, I was sure people were dead. There was no way there couldn’t be. Cars were upside down, and nearly all the windows were blown out. It was chaos.
We walked down the road past Jennings and saw the huge hole in its roof. Jo and I started joking again, asking how the amphitheater was. We were over-dramatic and laughing hysterically, thinking of the pathetic concrete slab that had cost so much money, money which was needed now. Then we saw the clock tower, which was completely fine! Ridiculous. I joked that it was a good thing it was too short, and Jo added that the tornado probably hadn’t even noticed it, it was so small.
Finally we arrived at White Hall, which was stuffed with students in the halls and the rooms. Along one hallway there were kids getting bandaged and there was blood and I tried not to look but I kind of did. We stayed there for probably half an hour, and everyone was hugging each other and making sure everyone was okay. I saw Kyle, and we exchanged greetings as if nothing had happened. That was fun. We had to sign a sheet of paper, which was a kind of ineffective role call.
As if we hadn’t been moved around enough, someone decided we needed to go to the PAC. It felt more like they wanted to show off how bad the campus was. We had reunited with Whitney and Brittany by that time, and the four of us walked down the sidewalks holding hands. Benches were all over the place, and thank goodness, the other side of the clock tower was minimally damaged. That was kind of comforting. I guess because it seemed fair.
In the PAC there were more injured kids, and one girl was bound in a stretcher. We were told to call people, to get off campus with friends or family. Whitney called Ashley and the family she’d stayed with in January, and all of a sudden she broke down crying. Stressful night times ten. Ashley said she would come get us, so we waited outside at the chapel circle, where traffic was being directed, and waited and waited. Jo called her mom and broke down. My mom called Whitney, so I got to talk to her for a couple minutes, and I was stoic. I was so proud of myself, being strong and not crying or screaming the whole time.
Ashley and her dad arrived, and the four of us crammed in their truck. They went driving around Jackson to check on a couple people, and Whit, Jo, and Britt were all on their phones, trying to call friends or family. I started getting really depressed, because I had nothing but the dirty clothes on my back. I wanted my phone, my purse, my money, my chapstick. Everyone was getting their parents to come pick them up in the morning, and I started freaking out. My parents lived seven hours away. Who was going to take care of me? Was everyone going to get to go home and I would be stuck in Jackson with absolutely nothing?
So when I finally got to call home with Ashley’s home phone, I lost it. I started sobbing, and partially I was upset that I lost my brave face, but mainly it felt good to release some stress. Ashley’s mom was awesome, making us hot chocolate and washing our clothes while we all wore Ashley’s. We watched the TV and heard that eight students were trapped, but would hopefully be saved soon. We heard that kids had died, then we heard that no one had. That was fantastically amazing to me. No one died. God was so so good.
There was supposedly another storm coming, which Jennie warned me of when I could finally talk to her, but I refused to believe it. Despite our vow to never take a tornado warning lightly ever again, I thought, “Surely it’s over. Two tornadoes is overkill–it can’t happen.” And thankfully, it didn’t.
We all curled up in Ashley’s room, three in her bed and two on a mattress on the floor. I fell asleep fast, because sleep is my happy place. We got up around 8:00, and I just wanted to stay in bed. I didn’t want to deal with life, with the fact that all my possessions were off-limits and possibly destroyed. I just wanted to go back to sleep, but I got up, drank some juice, and changed back into my now-clean clothes.
Jennie updated me. 40% of the dorms are completely demolished and irreparable. 40% have substantial damage. 20% are pretty okay with minimal damage. All but 100 cars are damaged. Apparently this tornado is 10x worse than the one in 2002. Classes are suspended until February 18, but it could be longer. The professors and staff took kids home so that no one had to spend the night in a high school room. This is ridiculous.
It doesn’t feel real. I think I’m dreaming. More, I feel like I’ve been plucked out of my normal life and I’m completely disoriented, not knowing what to do or where to go or what to think.
Jennie picked me up from Ashley’s and we went by Union. No one is allowed on campus yet, though there’s already been some looting. We left Bethany a coat and then went to Jennie’s house. Mom is on her way here, and I guess I’m staying in Jackson until we can find out about my stuff.
I already feel guilty, because from the death march last night, Craig [my dorm] didn’t look bad. I don’t know if the windows blew in or not, but it was so not as bad as anywhere else. And it looked like our parking lot was at least orderly. Cars weren’t upside down or thrown about. I’m going to feel overjoyed and terrible if my car and my stuff is unharmed, while so many other kids lost everything.
Ridiculous. That’s the only way to describe it. How in the world did natural disasters become a part of MY life?