Saturday, April 30, 2011
Sorting through the Rubble
Shuttle launches and royal weddings notwithstanding (oh, those English hats!), it feels like the world around me is being blown to pieces. "Never been so scared before," says Philip Lockhart, the owner of a pizzeria in Smithville, Miss., a town oi 900 and just one of many recently wiped off the map by tornadoes. City Hall is gone. The police department, obliterated. All across the south, grocery stores, funeral homes, scores of houses, trees, power lines, airports, schools--totally flattened. Entire towns turned to rubble. Death toll: at last count, 341 across seven states just from Wednesday's storms alone.
Last year at this time, we were worried about oil gushing into the Gulf; we fretted over a possible invasion by armies of bedbugs. (They're really hard to get rid of, everyone said.) This year, things are much worse. Trails of destruction left behind by hundreds of supercell tornadoes that touched down in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, and Kentucky last week, with even more watches issued for the entire East Coast as the storm system moved to new ground.
It feels like nature is waging the equivalent of nuclear war on humanity, as it obliterates neighborhoods and entire towns. "Sick is what I feel," said one man in a small town outside of Birmingham, whose neighborhood somehow survived the onslaught of wind, thunder, and lightning as they built a crescendo, and then suddenly stopped. Some of the tornadoes have been as big as a mile wide, with wind speeds of more than 200 mph, and raged along the ground for miles. "Prior to 2008, the possibility of tornadoes in Roanoke was laughable," stated one city emergency management coordinator. That was then, but this is now. "We're moving quickly from a world where we push nature around to a world where nature pushes back--and with far more power," Bill McKibben writes in "Eaarth." "Now we must try to figure out how to survive what's coming at us."
It's not hard to know what's coming at us. Just watch the videos on TV: ripped-off roofs, twisted telephone poles, cars flying through the air, water tanks, washing machines--all the remnants and husks of lives totally destroyed. A man tells Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell about how he and his girlfriend spent the night in their mobile home as it was being destroyed by the tornado. "We don't have anywhere to live. We don't have any jobs. We don't have anything." This could be you or me. These days it's hard to be sure where you leave off and I begin.
Viscerally, it is disturbing to watch a neighborhood, not that far from your own, in the flick of an eyelash turn into rubble--as if nature itself were undergoing some chromosomal change, becoming like Dr. Frankenstein's monster, devouring itself, eating the world with its own teeth. And then vomiting out rubble. The tornado hits for a few seconds, and suddenly you look around. You see that you are still alive, but your life is no longer there. Instead, you are dancing around in your bones in a graveyard, doomed to come back and haunt the scene. You can still hear your own heart, and suddenly remember how happy you were while hunting Easter eggs before it all happened.
You stare into the awful darkness and you flinch, realizing it isn't easy to start life all over again. You can't tell when you might ever want to be a pedestrian again, or keep bees, carve out a headstone, roll a hoop, or just plain shut the blinds against a monstrous June bug thumping insistently at the window, as though it wanted admittance. It may be a very long time before you wonder casually, what shall I do this morning?