*Warning! This is a long post. Sorry.*
Friday morning my brother graduated from college. I had mixed emotions (and still do) because of that: after Friday we no longer have a close family member living in the same town as us. And in a town like this, where generations reside together and families intermix until everyone (or seemingly everyone) is enmeshed in a complicated web of relations, not having a family member in town is kind of a big deal.
And maybe it’s just me. I like having family close by.
Friday was memorable for another reason too.
After all of the festivities were over and my parents went to help my brother pack up his stuff in his dorm room, Husband went to the park to help split up our food co-op order and I went to work at the library.
A word about the food co-op is in order. In our small town, excess is accepted and encouraged when it comes in the form of a nice car, but frugality reigns supreme in the food budget. Therefore, those of us who want to buy food in bulk that is fair trade or organic must band together and order our organic fair trade food. The food then comes on a truck once every two months and it’s our job, as members of the food co-op, to get together and divide up the food to take home. The truck comes to an enclosed shelter in the park in the south-central part of town.
As I was shelving books in the library, around 3:00 in the afternoon, I noticed the sky in the north and the west was getting dark. It grew increasingly dark very quickly. Rain began to fall, and we librarians began to discuss whether we would need to evacuate to the basement. The sky was almost black. Our library director texted her husband, who works in town south of the library.
Just as he texted her back to tell her we were in a tornado warning, the sirens around town sounded.
I looked out the window, and north of the library, by the grain elevators, I saw what looked like a funnel cloud coming down out of the sky, dust and rain swirling madly.
Because everyone in small-town Iowa knows that sirens sounding during a tornado warning means that a tornado has been spotted, the activity and noise level in the library increased dramatically in a short period of time.
Through the wail of the sirens, we ushered every patron down the hall to the door to the basement. As we moved and I tried professionally comfort patrons and keep them moving, my mind was screaming, Mark’s at the park! There’s no basement in the shelter and no radio!
Quickly everyone clambered down into the basement. We found a chair for an older lady who was just about hyperventilating. A teenager carried her computer, “I’m in the middle of an online test! I can’t just stop!” One librarian started crying, wanting to be with her four little kids and husband during a tornado. I clutched the paper bag I had found in case the older lady did start hyperventilating in trembling hands.
My fellow children’s librarian, Judy, offered to let me try to call Mark on her cell phone. I dialed as quickly as I could with quavering fingers.
The phone rang a few times and then I heard, “Hello, this is Mark.”
“Mark! It’s me. You… you have to get out of the park! There’s a tornado!” I babbled.
“A tornado? Where is it?”
“I think it’s by the grain elevators! By the mall! Hold on.” Someone was pounding frantically at the door at the top of the stairs. Gwen, another librarian, rushed up the stairs to open the door. A bald-headed and sopping wet man was followed down the stairs by a Latino man, carrying his baby girl, and two Latino ladies. All were drenched.
“I saw it!” gasped the bald man.
“Where is it?” we all asked, talking over and through one another.
“On the south side of town by the KSOU tower! I was driving that way but as soon as I saw it, I turned my car around and came back here.”
“Where? Hill! Where is it?” Mark asked, impatiently.
“South part of town. By the KSOU tower.”
“I thought you said it was by the mall. Where’s the KSOU tower?”
“I don’t know. Mark, you have to go home or find a basement somewhere. You can’t stay at the park.”
“Should I invite everyone here to go to our house?”
“Yes! I don’t know! You just need to find shelter!”
“OK. I’m going to go talk to people. Call me back if you hear of any more about the tornado.”
“OK. Bye.” As I hung up, I wished that I’d said, “I love you.”
Now, as you’re reading this, you may think I was being overly dramatic, and maybe I was. But we couldn’t see outside. We didn’t know what was going on, where the tornado was. We thought we had seen it in the north part of town. We couldn’t get our weather radio to work, and a bald patron has just told us that the tornado was in the south part of town. For all we knew, our little town was filled with rampaging tornados.
The few parents who were weathering the storm in the library basement were extremely anxious about their kids. School would have been let out just as the sirens went off. Thankfully, we heard from one of the few who came pounding on the basement door after the sirens started that the schools had pulled the kids back in off of the buses. Those students who had been released before the storm to walk or bike home were picked up by firefighters in trucks, who were roaming the streets specifically to pick up kids.
The sirens in our town will sound continuously if a tornado has been spotted and will continue until the tornado is gone (‘Gone’ can refer to a tornado that has blown away to ravage some other town or a tornado that has disappeared, been pulled up into the clouds). At 3:15 the sirens had begun to sound, and at about 3:35 they stopped suddenly.
All we could hear was the rain pounding, and the comparative quiet was eerie. A few people compared Weather Alert cell phone texts. We finally got our radio to work. The radio announcer, who I was impressed to note did not sound at all flustered, reported that the tornado warning was scheduled to be over by 3:45.
At 3:45 we ventured up the stairs. I was surprised to see that the world outside the library looked mostly the same as it had two hours ago except that it was much wetter. A little wind was still blowing and the rain was still falling, but gently now.
The woman who had been standing at the circulation desk went back by her stack of movies to wait for a librarian. I tried to shake off the feeling of impending doom and remember how to operate our barcode scanner. When the lady with the movies went happily on her way, I called Mark one more time.
“Mark! Are you OK? Where are you?”
“I’m still at the park. A couple of us just stayed here. We figured it was safer to stay in a cement building than to try to drive somewhere when we didn’t know where the tornado was.”
“Ugh,” I groaned. I was glad I hadn’t known that earlier. “OK. I’m glad you’re safe. I’m going to try to call my parents and see if they’re still in Sioux Center or if they made it out before all this came through.”
“OK. I love you.”
“I love you too, Mark.”
I called my parents, who, it turns out, were hunkered down in our basement. They had been getting gas at the gas station on the north part of town when the storm sprang up, seemingly out of nowhere. They had finished pumping their gas, not waiting for the machine to print a receipt, and had hightailed it back to our house.
Everyone was OK. The tornado (which we found out later had touched down on the south side of town, not by the mall) didn’t do much damage.
Even now I have a hard time reflecting on the tornado and the events around it. Everything happened so quickly. And really, very little damage was done (except to the psyches of a lot of kids, I’m sure). If nothing else, the experience gave me a taste of the reality that things can change very quickly. Very. Whether those are changes that feel good, like an adoptive couple finally being referred to a baby to adopt, or changes that feel bad, like a tornado sweeping away your house and items you hold dear.
Maybe that sounds like a really depressing way to end a post. Maybe it is. But it doesn’t feel entirely depressing to me. It’s just something to think about, something I need to hang on to. Nothing in my life is as sure as it feels.
Except for my God.