After the monsters are gone
A monster tornado is different. It's cold and mechanical but not subject to the usual strictures of logic or reason. It doesn't care who you are or where you live or what you're like or whether you've done all the right things that are supposed to improve your odds of survival. It's the universe's way of telling you that you're nothing in the great scheme of things and shall receive all the deference that status affords you. It's the primal knowledge -- petrifying and helpless and dreadful -- that this thing is either going to kill you or not, and nothing you say or do can be depended upon to change its split-second verdict.
If you've heard the sound, you already know these words -- any words -- are inadequate to describe it. If you haven't heard it, I hope beyond all hope that you never will.
* * *
The monsters are an unavoidable fact of life in Alabama. I was fortunate enough to be spared by one that came at me a few years ago. Hundreds of my fellow Alabamians were not so lucky when the monsters came for them Wednesday during the nation's deadliest tornado outbreak in almost 90 years.
If you don't live in Alabama, it's difficult to understand just how shattering that day was for those who do: how callously it ripped away loved ones from hundreds of families and thousands of friends, how thoroughly it vaporized so many beloved and familiar places, how deeply it scarred the psyches of even people who physically endured nothing more than a few raindrops. "I've never seen devastation like this," President Obama said Friday during a visit to Tuscaloosa, one of the dozens of cities across the state that won't even be within earshot of normal again for years or even decades.
Few others in Alabama have seen devastation quite like this, either. I suppose part of us almost thought we couldn't. This is a place where children grow up practicing their tornado drills. This is the age of Doppler radars and TVS readings and wall-to-wall weather coverage. This is the state that turned a bald local television weatherman into a folk hero. If anyone has a healthy respect for the power of nature and its unpredictable skies, it's us.
But that's just it: Sometimes it doesn't matter how ready you are. Even well-built brick homes disappeared into nothingness in Wednesday's powerful storms. Even people who heeded all the warnings and crowded into a bathroom or closet as they've been told to do lost their lives amid the swirling death that ripped apart town after town. Good people in one home survived unscathed while good people next door were killed. There's no rhyme or reason to tornadoes. There's no arguing or pleading with them. There's only a chilling assurance: If the monster wants you badly enough, it will get you.
* * *
Fortunately, the monsters can't and don't get most of us. Those lucky enough to dodge the bullet are left with the responsibility to provide immediate aid and comfort to the victims and their families, to begin the long process of cleaning up the wreckage, and to start the even longer process of rebuilding a broken landscape. It's not a glamorous task, and it's one that will continue long after the lights of the national media, temporarily drawn here away from the fluffy glitz of the British royal wedding and the grave seriousness of the ongoing Libyan airstrikes, move on yet again to another story.
It's also a task that, done properly, will require us to look in the mirror as a people. Many tornado deaths occur, as they did in this outbreak, in mobile homes. It's easy to say the victims just need to seek sturdier shelter, but that ignores the fact that mobile home residents usually are poor, frequently have few other places they can go, and often have limited means to get there before a tornado even if they do. Those who live through the experience also have far fewer resources to rebuild than other survivors.
Our sense of duty to help our neighbors shouldn't fade away as this awful disaster grows more distant in time. As a state and as a nation, we should commit to do more, both publicly and privately, to reduce poverty, to make good housing and health care more widely available for people who can't afford its full cost, and to increase transportation options for people who don't have a reliable vehicle. These missions will be difficult, and they will never be complete. But they will help save and rebuild lives, and they will help make life better for all of us.
Monsters come and go. Our humanity endures.