Longtime readers of Kittywampus may recall that there are just a few things that viscerally scare me:
Almost all of these things enter into the story from Thursday night, through I don’t believe any wasps were involved. But honestly? I wouldn’t know; I was holed up with my kids. As I was cleaning up the dinner mess, I heard the scream of an emergency siren. I knew that the university was planning to test its emergency system – on Friday. So I flew out to my front porch, straining to hear the announcement through its bullhorn-distortions. All I picked up was “take shelter,” along with the oppressive air on my porch, and that was good enough for this North Dakotan-bred gal. I yelled upstairs, “Tornado warning!” The Tiger yelled, “Tornado warning!”
He and his brother, the Bear, tore down the stairs. I followed them into the basement, laptop and phone in hand. (Why, oh why, didn’t a flashlight even occur to me?) Minutes later, I chanced the upstairs again just long enough to rescue a few treasured stuffed animals and the cord for my laptop. I was alone with the kids. Mmy husband was at a meeting in the country, out of cell range, which was a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because he holds the theory that tornadoes never strike Athens, and that warning aren’t worth heeding. A curse, because I couldn’t be sure he was in safety.
For a good half hour, the biggest challenge was keeping the Tiger’s whine of “I’m bored!” from driving the rest of us around the bend. I let them watch a couple of silly YouTube clips (this one cracked them up again). I was hoping we could go back up once the warning expired at 7:15. The Bear would be about to go to his music practice, and we could try to track down their dad.
But then we heard the emergency siren again. And again. Soon sirens were wailing every minute or two. I still couldn’t catch the message, but I was certain it wasn’t “all clear.” I’d have guessed, oh, “prepare to die.” The next day, a friend said he’d heard “Tornadoes are surrounding Athens!” which I’m sure was close to the truth.
Here’s what it really said:
Looking around our basement hideaway, I started toting up the hazards. The small window. The bookshelves. My French horn (hey, that would be deadly if it went airborne.) I gave each kid an oversized pillow to shield their noggins and necks. At that, the Tiger’s boredom tipped over into terror. He would not be consoled by how silly it was to have a lumpy Winnie-the-Pooh chair over his head. I nixed YouTube so I could hear, and the LOLcats just weren’t cutting it as a distraction. Even the Bear was fighting tears. Heck, I was working hard to act brave. It didn’t help that the National Weather Service was starting to report multiple sightings of a twister touching down. Or that I was frantically hitting refresh on their page.
When we finally emerged from our secure underground location after an hour and a half (without ever sighting Cheney, I might add), we were all rattled. So were our neighbors and friends. We’d kept our power while most of the town and county had lost it. An acquaintance had actually seen the funnel cloud moving merrily down his road. Afterward, he had to take his chain saw to the large trees that had fallen across the road, trapping him and his family.
News filtered in only slowly. It seemed clear that Athens and its environs had been struck by at least one tornado. Rumors started to spread that the high school had been hit. One of the first reports noted that Pine-Aire Village had suffered damage and had to be evacuated due to a gas leak. The tornado had duked it out with the achingly poor mobile home park where I went canvassing in 2008. As usual, the tornado won. As usual, Pine-Aire Village lost. People who are trying their damnedest just to eke by now have new worries.
I haven’t taken a look at Pine-Aire because frankly, I’m still scared of the meth dealer and the vicious, unleashed dogs. But I did see how similar trailers were flipped and squished nearby in The Plains, the closest thing Athens has to a bedroom community. These mobile homes were located right next to Athens High School, which for bizarre reasons relating to government pork funds is located in the Plains.
This picture (and the next) was taken by my husband the next evening, as dusk was closing in. The woman next to the trailer is a Fox News local reporter. (They just lapped this up.)
Note how someone has scribbled “NOT SAFE” in big red letters. I’m not gonna argue.
The rumors about the high school turned out to be true. It was full with soccer and volleyball players and their families. The morning after the storm, a good friend of mine – the mother of the Bear’s best friend – responded to my worried email. She’d been working in the concession stand when some prescient soul yelled that a funnel cloud was approaching. She sprinted up the long steep hill to the high school and took shelter in the bunker-like locker rooms. Other adults, perhaps thinking they’d be safer sheltering in place (the hill is pretty daunting), remained in the concession stand. At least two of them were injured, though not seriously. One was taken to the hospital, the other treated on the scene.
That’s the inside of the concession stand.
That’s its exterior.
Meanwhile, the students on the field had sought shelter from the rain in the press box. Someone ushered them down to a locker room that’s located right on the edge of the field. Good thing. The press box blew clean off the top of the bleachers.
Cars were crushed as the press box collapsed behind the stands.
My friend had a bad half hour before she was reunited with her son. The fear of another strike hadn’t quite abated enough for everyone to be released. My friend was in cell contact with her son, but the wait was hard, especially as the smell of gas indicated leaks. When they were finally permitted to leave, they found a moonscape: mature trees snapped like sticks, debris everywhere, and a stadium that won’t host games anytime soon.
The scoreboard is whacked.
The football goals stand at jaunty new angles.
The wreckage in the foreground used to be a stadium light. (Those to the right and left remain standing, but their lamps have been turned 90 degrees.) The wreckage in the back – well, that was the visitors’ bleachers.
Structures to the right and left of the locker room were decimated. And yet, the kids sheltering there stayed safe.
School is called off until further notice. The high school suffered damage to some classrooms.
It also lost its two 1000-pound AC units, which blew off the roof.
It is a miracle that no one was killed. I heard one chopper take off Thursday night, and the next day a colleague confirmed that one person was injured badly enough to require transfer to Columbus. On the whole, though, injuries appear to be few and minor. Property damage is much more significant.
The tornado also touched down in Athens proper, leaving its main mark on Autotech, an automotive servicing and towing company at the edge of town. The only two buildings farther out along that road are the Super 8 Motel and the clinic where I had my colonoscopy. Those facilities survived with only minor damage (mostly missing shingles). Just a few yards away, Autotech was damaged beyond redemption.
The view from the highway.
Note the Coke machine encircled by corrugated metal. (I took this photo yesterday morning, and the machine was liberated by evening.) Note, too the wads of insulation. We saw them everywhere. All those years growing up in North Dakota, and I never imagined that the hallmark of a tornado could be oodles of rogue insulation.
Of course the impaired Coke dispenser adds credibility to the conspiracy theory …
… that this tornado was brought to us by Pepsi. (Photo from the high school.) Yes, I’m being flip. Black humor is one of the ways I deal with the world’s horrors.
I’m grateful that my family didn’t suffer any harm beyond the shock and fright. Today the Tiger has been playing with Lincoln Logs. Every once in a while a tornado comes and knocks them down. It’s spookily reminiscent of boys I knew who were 10 after the Twin Towers collapsed. They built mega-towers out of legos, which were level by terrorist flying planes. I shudder. Yet our kids seem to need these reenactments in order to come to grips with destruction that none of us can really fathom.
I’m grateful that all of the neighborhoods in Athens proper were spared, and that the elementary schools (except the Plains?) seem to be fine. (I still expect them to stay closed on Monday, given the track record of my boyfriend, the superintendent. We’ve now burned through a full third of our three calamity days.)
Ohio University got very lucky. It appears undamaged. Nor will the Darwin Award go to any of those students who went outdoors to watch the storm “cause I’ve never seen a tornado!”
Tonight, my thoughts are with the people of The Plains, the families of AHS students, and (further afield) the people who did succumb to the storm: a man in West Virginia as well as those killed in Queens in a separate, even freakier storm.
And I’m grateful for the rescuers, pictured here in an extraordinary photo by Spencer Heaps, taken the same evening as the storm:
Spencer Heaps has several other stunning photos at his blog. Please do pay him a visit.
The Athens News also has info on Athens County being declared a disaster area and on the confusing scene at the high school. They offer a photo gallery, too.
There’s no really good footage of the tornado itself, thankfully. (I don’t want people putting themselves in harm’s way!) The next closest thing is this clip, taken by college students living on a hill on the south side of town, which to my knowledge was not damaged.
Photos by me and my husband except as noted.
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