Katie Cline, Editor-in-Chief
At 12:30 p.m. on Monday, March 19, 2018, I was on my way to eat lunch with my family. Twelve hours later, I was trying to figure out if they were alive.
Tornados struck all of my homes that night: my childhood home on 9th Avenue and my college home at JSU. My dorm building, Meehan Hall—the only dorm with students still in it—was, thankfully, unharmed.
I was asked to walk readers through that night and the days that have followed:
It was supposed to be “nothing out of the usual for Spring in Alabama.” A thunderstorm. Wind. Maybe hail. Could possibly spawn some tornados. But I wasn’t worried. I’ve lived in Jacksonville my whole life, and, growing up, we were always told that the city was safe because of the mountain range. We were in a bowl. A tornado wouldn’t touch down here. The odds were astronomically in our favor.
But even the best odds are still odds—as we found out. When the first sirens went off, my best friend came from her apartment across the street to wait out the storm in my dorm room. I live on the stadium side, and it’s basically a concrete bunker. That is one of the few positive parts of this story.
When the power went out, we knew this wasn’t just a spring thunderstorm. One of my roommates and her fiancé were already in the bathtub. We called my best friend’s boyfriend—who was at home in the Fort Payne area—and he stayed on the line with us for the next four hours. Without him, I would have had a breakdown much sooner. It’s a miracle that she didn’t lose cell phone service. Four days later and my service is still cutting in and out.
After the storms had passed, we were almost evacuated from Meehan Hall because of a possible gas leak. I threw together a bag with clothes that didn’t match, dry shampoo, my favorite stuffed animals and my insulin. I knew it wasn’t enough, but it was what I could get to.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to evacuate.
There were six of us who slept in my room that night. And by “slept,” I mean we sat up for hours looking at pictures of the damage and trying to wrap our minds around the fact that our entire lives were blown away with that storm. We were alive, and that was the only thing we were sure of.
I finally heard from my parents late that night. They were at home with my younger brother, who is a sophomore at JSU, and our six pets when the storm came right down the street by our house. Their ears popped. The house shook. Everything you hear about on documentaries happened to them. And everyone walked out alive—including our four cats and two dogs.
They stayed the night at our neighbors’ house. Their house had some damage, but they made room. Our house, my parents told me, wasn’t livable. Water was pouring from the light fixtures, and my room had a “new skylight” thanks to pine tree that came down squarely on our roof.
But they were alive.
I didn’t know the extent of the damage until the next morning. I desperately tried to get to my house. It’s five minutes on a normal day. On Tuesday, it took me 45 minutes. And during those 45 minutes I took in everything—or, well, nothing, because that’s what was left. It didn’t feel real. It felt like a movie scene, some elaborate set piece. Jacksonville looks exactly like Tuscaloosa after the April 2011 tornadoes. I saw pictures of that damage seven years ago, and now it was here, in my home. It didn’t feel real. It still doesn’t.
Now, the cleanup process begins, and I can only think of myself and my family. It feels selfish, because, normally, I’m a very caring and helpful person, but, the truth of the matter is that we don’t have a house. The house that I’ve lived in for all of my 22 years of life is not livable any longer. The tree that fell on our roof took out the outside wall of my bedroom, put holes in my brother’s bedroom wall, knocked out a quarter of the dining room ceiling and all of the kitchen ceiling, punched a ten-foot branch into the living room and brought down a solid 12 feet of ceiling panel in there, too. That doesn’t even touch the water damage in almost every room. The carpeted floors squish and slosh when you walk on them, and you have to duck under wayward rafters.
But we’re alive.
I’ve spent the last two days sifting through 22 years of my belongings. Some highlights of my “discoveries” are: my middle school diaries (they were trashed because of “water damage,” but really because they are so, so cringy), a sixth grade homework project about monk seals (which I kept for posterity’s sake), a photo album my third grade teacher gave me (kept, for the sole purpose of seeing the glow up from Third Grade Chubby Katie to Present-Day Less Chubby Katie) and my entire collection of Radio Disney CDs (don’t worry, they were tucked away in a drawer and didn’t get any water damage).
So, in a lot of ways, I don’t have a house anymore. The house that I was brought home to as a newborn, that I took my first steps in and lost my first tooth in is gone. The penciled in growth chart on the kitchen wall is washed away. My shelf of trophies and certificates from PARD soccer and AR and Girl Scouts is buried under plaster and tree branches. And Jacksonville is a far cry away from the city I’ve always called home. As I think about it now, I can only imagine it the way it was: green and bright and quaint and quiet, calm and full of familiar backroads and friendly faces. Right now, it’s messy and barren and brown, and chainsaws are roaring 24/7, and the friendly faces are furrowed with worry, and every time my mom smiles, she cries, because nothing will ever be the same.
But we’re alive.
I want to stay positive. I want to try to make jokes about our “indoor pool” and “natural lighting” and “fresh pine scent.” But I also want to sob and be bitter and say, “Why me? Why us? Why now?”
But, in reality—if such a thing even exists anymore—there is nothing “interesting” about this situation. There’s only tragedy and a strong community of people pulling each other up by the bootstraps even when they don’t have any bootstraps themselves.
I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I don’t know where I’ll live this summer. Or where I’ll work. Or where my parents, both of whom are JSU employees, will work. I don’t know what this does to graduation. To my mental health. I don’t know what I don’t know. The last three days I’ve smiled a lot, and I’m trying to convince myself that there are still things to smile about, because I have been so blessed. We might be technically homeless, but if casseroles and boxes/plastic tubs were dollars, we’d be billionaires. The love we’ve received is just as overwhelming as the destruction.
So am I mad? Yes.
Am I scared? Yes.
Am I panicking because I can’t control this? Heck yes.
But am I alive?
And that’s something at least.