Much like any other morning potentially threatening bad weather, I was hoping for my classes to be cancelled. I have Spanish on Wednesdays and bad weather would mean my not having to listen to my teacher try and convince me to talk in a language not my own. It being the end of the semester, I was really ready to just have it all be over with. A small little storm, I thought, would mean possibly a few downed trees and no Spanish class. The greatest downside I could foresee would be my having to endure the pain of walking home from class in partially-damp socks… perspective, I know. We were wary of the weather all day long, more interested by the multicolored projections of weather maps than actually worried by it. Worst case scenario, James Spann would tell us all to get into a “safe place” and we would, emerging hours later to see a gray sky and soaked earth. I ran from a class I had later in the day (Spanish class had come and gone) to return to my dorm—a building whose signs boast of being a fallout shelter built in the 70’s.
As soon as I entered my dorm, I was being told to make sure all my residents were on the ground floor, tucked away in the hallways that would most protect them from whatever was coming our way. I went to my room, put away my things and warned my residents—not because I was worried, but because my job required it. We huddled in hallways and listened to the news, hoping to hear that it was nothing, none of us at all even worried. An hour progressed. My boss came running down the hallway and announced to me to make sure that all those at my end of the building were in a safe place because an “F5 tornado is at the stadium and coming right towards us.” I went into a hallway and sat there praying and holding what I had on me: my bible, a journal, a book and a letter. I took a few phone calls from friends who were watching the news. They told me it was coming right at me. Then the power went out. I had a moment where I thought, “this is it. This is how I’m going to die.” I thought that there was no way for our building to sustain a tornado that I had been told was a half-mile wide. I trusted in Jesus, but I also trusted that this may be His plan for my life, to end in that hallway as a young man just barely twenty-one years old. I was freaking out, literally shaking and rocking back and forth as my sweat soaked my shirt, and I very nearly passed out on multiple occasions. As you can tell from reading this, the tornado didn’t hit my building. However, it passed within a quarter-mile of where I call home, devastating everything in its path and stopping for no one. Don’t misread what I’m saying: the largest tornado-producing storm to ever touch our nation came within a quarter-mile of me. It still wasn’t real to me.
Immediately after the storm was over, I was asked to help move mattresses to the student recreation center to house students who had lost their homes. We worked for the next six hours moving mattresses, linens and pillows to the rec center in hopes that many would find shelter there. The devastation at this point began to sink in. Rumors of National Guard and FEMA involvement began to circulate. We were at this point being told things about the city we had all grown to love and which parts of it were simply “gone.” ‘Gone’ became a word that we grew quite familiar with in the coming days. In that moment, we had no real idea. However, we knew we were helping and so we pressed on. As we moved in all the stuff I listed, we began to see whole families moving to the rec center for who knows how long, because their houses had been completely destroyed. We saw wounds of people who would never completely heal. We saw people sobbing, people who were filthy and a myriad of people who wanted to help. As I saw those poor families enter the building and knew that nothing I could say or give them would ever give back what they lost, it began to get a little more real to me.
Today I was able to get out a bit. I dropped off some donated items to a church that was taking them in. Some friends of mine and I loaded up a truck and took it to a church called “Five Points.” We took clothes, food, water and other various items that may have been of some use to the people in need. As we drove up, we saw the National Guard directing traffic and hundreds of volunteers everywhere. We carried boxes into the church’s gymnasium, and I was immediately awed. I looked around at a very small room and saw over a hundred people sorting all sorts of goods into bags and boxes to distribute. The overwhelming sense of pride in my fellow man began to take me over. I felt the warmth and generosity of the people in that room being placed into those bags along with all that they loaded them with. Hundreds of volunteers and National Guardsmen brought to my attention a further sense of reality. It was getting even more real to me.
Since I’ve had back electricity and have been able to see the footage and the pictures and the comments from people on the facebook, it has opened my eyes. I’ve seen the raw footage of God’s power and the devastation that He allowed. I’ve seen the families—broken and with nothing more in their possession than all that they carry on them—walking to find shelter and food. I’ve seen the general outcry from my fellow people, donating goods and services to all those in need. I’ve heard the numbers of the missing, the injured and the dead. I’ve listened to stories that would bring you only tears. I’ve been told names and places that are no longer there, they’re “gone.” Through all of this that I’ve seen, heard and witnessed first-hand, it wasn’t completely real to me yet. Let me tell you about when it became real to me. Today I was able to see my parents and siblings for the first time since that day the storm hit and changed all our lives forever. I saw my father, and I hugged him. I saw my siblings, and I hugged them. Then I saw my mother. She walked to me, and, yes, she hugged me. But she also held onto me. She ran her hands over my back and smelled me. She looked at me, and she shut her eyes as she soaked in that moment. It became real to me then because, right at that very moment—as she clung to me with nearly all of her senses—I realized as she had known for days that she almost lost me. That, through God’s incomprehensible grace, that mighty and awesome tornado had taken a right turn of a few degrees and missed me. As she held me in that room not far from where the storm passed me over, it became real to me. The gravity of the situation had suddenly been revealed to me, and with that a greater understanding of all else that I had seen.