I'm too young to admit that I flip past the weather channel (sorry dad), but I do on occasion. The other day they were doing their 2011 retrospective and they called it the "Year of the Tornado" in a severely contrived and overly dramatic way. They mentioned lots of tornadoes, including the majorly destructive Joplin tornado. They also briefly mentioned the Good Friday Tornado in St. Louis, with a brief shot or two of the airport. This reminded me that although I didn't mean to shy away from it, I managed not to post my family's story from that night. I've talked about it and I will continue to talk about the experience to anyone who
sits still long enough . More generally and embarrassingly, I haven't posted a single blog entry since that night, although I've saved about 15 unrelated draft entries between then and now. Myriad excuses could fill space here and I could even admit that a small contributing factor is that every time I'd sit down to write something else, I'd get a bit of writer's block from the immediate recollection. I remind myself "I really should put down our adventure from the tornado before I plunge into anything else." Meanwhile, it's now seven months later, a new year has begun and other important events are also happening that I should write about. Enough intro, here we go.
On the night of Friday, April 22nd, 2011 we were going to go to movie night at the church. In recognition of Good Friday, Ferguson Christian Church was having The Passion of the Christ. Lisa and I had seen it before, but wanted to see it again. Reese, Olivia and Sam were going to be downstairs watching a different movie with the rest of the kids. However, while getting ready to pack the family in the car to drive to the church, we heard the tornado siren. Now, let me mention this is nothing new for us. For those of you who are not natives to St. Louis, we get about two or three warnings a year and I've never been affected by an actual tornado. Oh, I kinda thought about it and in some ways wished to witness one from a safe distance, but I never thought I would.
We paused for a few minutes and checked the local weather station. But it was unclear if the threat was high or low, and where exactly it was headed. The movie would be starting soon, so I made the executive decision that we'd be in just as much hypothetical danger in our own house as we'd be at the church. Secretly, I assumed it would pass us by just as it always had.
I should point out here that my oldest daughter has never been a big fan of storms. Me personally, I could have been a storm chaser in another life. I've been out in a tent with no rain fly, surprised by a thunderstorm in the Arizona desert. I've sat in a lawn chair on the drive way at midnight to watch a rain wall approach. I've been within a hundred yards of a lightning strike many times, close enough to feel the hairs on my neck raise up a bit from the ambient static. Once when I was a small child, a lightning surge caused a small fire in our basement fuse box. I'm not often scared of weather, but Lisa and the girls --especially Reese-- are more often apprehensive.
At my urging, we decided to go. Lisa suggested we take my car instead of hers just in case there was hail, and I agreed. Leaving the house, we could see a fair amount of lightning in the distance, but it had not yet begun to rain much. We drove to the church. In retrospect I'm glad we did go rather than stay home, although there were moments that night where I thought I'd made a big mistake.
We got to the church late and the movie had already started. We sequestered the kids downstairs with Joni and then found some seats towards the back. For a minute or two, I completely forgot about the storm. But outside, the lightning continued and strengthened. The church sanctuary was dark for the movie, but it has several windows, and although they were 'frosted' glass, it was too obvious the storm was growing. The first thing I remember most vividly about the lightning and thunder were how rapid and staccato they were. It was almost like someone had a movie sound effect button for thunder, but they were pushing it far too often for a regular storm. The second thing about this was that it added a bonus layer to the powerful moments of the movie. On the screen, Jesus performs a miracle of healing the wounded ear of a Roman soldier, in darkened slow motion with the orchestra humming out minor chords. And the thunder was pounding along triumphantly with emphasis.
Still assuming that the storm would blow over, but now with less certainty, I was a bit distracted from the story by cell phone buzzing several times. My dad was trying to check on me with the storm in our area. He knew we were originally planning to go to the movie at church, but was hoping that we'd ended up staying home. I ignored the phone at first, but it became apparent that I wasn't the only one getting concerned messages. There were about 35 people there total. Throughout the pews, the lights of more than a few phones were buzzing for attention as warnings from concerned family members were coming in. One of the calls was our Pastor's wife Angie, calling to let him know he really needed to get everyone downstairs. Pastor Stacy checked outside briefly and when he came back in he calmly paused the DVD and let everyone know. The thunder continued to roll even louder now, emphasizing his point.
Knowing our children's propensity to worry overly much, Lisa and I were the first down the stairs and the first parents to reach the classrooms. Just then the power went off, but luckily there were emergency lights in the hallway. We lead the group back to the fellowship hall, the downstairs dining area where the kitchen and large tables are where we sometimes have potluck lunches. We had a moment to collect ourselves and people were just starting to sit down. Someone said "we might as well get comfortable as we wait this out."
If it's not clear by now, I don't like to overreact about potential emergencies until that is that I know it's a real emergency. At that moment, despite the amazing thunder and the repetitive lightning... At that moment, I still thought it was going to blow over. ...Thirty seconds later the disaster was over.
An EF4 tornado that had already wrecked havoc in Maryland Heights, and the Lambert St. Louis International Airport, was passing through Ferguson from roughly East to West. It bounced along parallel to Airport road, which becomes Hereford Avenue. It crossed over N. Florissant Rd., wrecking the Little Ceasars and then tearing through the backyards and between the houses between Hereford and Royal. It knocked down fences and trees, and removed many rooftops along the way.
In the space of thirty seconds, it hit our church and then was moving on to cause more damage to the East in Dellwood and on into Illinois. Thirty seconds was all it took to take the entire roof and beams of the sanctuary and toss them across the parking lot and down the street like an armload of Lincoln Log toys.
From my perspective in the basement, thirty seconds was all it took to go from ...
C'mon, It's going to blow over,to...
I've made a terrible mistake!to...
Thank God, I think that might be over...
I didn't see much, as we were in the basement and it was pretty dark. The suggestion I'd always heard was that the sound of an approaching tornado was similar to an approaching train. But for some reason, I was listening for the whistle. I should have been listening for the rumble, a deep-throatiness growl that sounded more dead than alive. It started out so sub-audible that I almost missed it. But there was also a sensation, and that was perhaps what I noticed first. The pressure in the room changed rapidly, like opening a window in a speeding car. I'd guess that happened when some of the windows upstairs blew out. At the same moment, it felt like being lifted. For just a moment, some force was trying to pick me up --and everything around me-- and carry me away. It was not strong enough to do so for sure, but the mere presence of something opposing gravity even a little was disorientating. Also in that moment, everything in the building rattled and shifted at once. All of the drop ceiling tiles above my head bounced with the popping pressure and shifted in their fittings. My skin hairs stood on end at the pressure and temperature change, but also I felt a tiny mist of moisture pass by me.
Everyone was yelling at once. As all these things were happening, I recall the fight or flight moments and hitting the floor. The noise and the banging made you want to look everywhere at once. Dust permeated everything. My first conscious moments of deliberate motion were crawling across the floor in the direction of where I thought my wife's voice was coming from. I could hear both my girls shouting, but at first I couldn't hear my son. Lisa had been holding Sam right before it all started. She had dived under a table with him still cradled on one hip. It took only moments though still too long, but I did find them under a table. The gasping and coughing quieted quickly and so did the noise from the receding storm. Everyone was alive and unhurt. It was a very long thirty seconds.
Things get a little blurry after that. We all stood up, verified everyone was unhurt and brushed ourselves off. For several minutes most everyone was reluctant to leave the basement. As it turned out, one of our elders, Larry Doggett had not been in the basement with everyone else, but had gone upstairs and just out the FRONT DOOR to see when the storm would pass. He got caught standing in the doorway holding onto the frame as it passed just over his head. He was fine and he came down to check on his wife, daughter Joni and grandchildren. He was the first to inform us --matter of factly-- that the "roof was gone". When he said this, I assumed that a portion of the roof was gone or at best just some of the shingles. But nope, he really meant the whole roof. We now had an open-air church sanctuary.
I wanted to see this right away, but the sirens were still going off occasionally and I also wanted to stay with my family. I called my dad and let him know we were okay. After about an hour or so, the crowd downstairs started to thin out and the storm was clearly over. We went upstairs and surveyed the damage both inside and out. My car had received scrapes on all body panels and had one small broken window (later to be declared a totaled vehicle). Luckily it hadn't been crushed by the roof beams. More concerning was that my car and most every OTHER car in the parking lot was blocked in by the beams that lay across Royal and Elizabeth. We literally couldn't leave without walking or getting a ride.
Of course my dad would come and rescue us. My cell phone came in quite handy as we waited so that we could coordinate where to meet him. As we waited, I found myself approaching our pastor and the other elders many times asking what in retrospect are silly questions. What should I do? Should we start cleaning up now? Where are we going to put all this debris? They didn't have answers except for "not much tonight, that's for sure." Strangely, in my adrenaline state, I found that unsatisfactory. I wanted to DO something, but recovery for us and the houses up and down the street was going to be a lengthy process.
Power was out everywhere. As it turned out, dad couldn't get all the way in to Ferguson to help us, at least not to the church. The police were prudently keeping areas blocked off to incoming traffic and we were right in the middle of that area. We ended up walking from the church to January-Wabash park, which is 0.9 miles or so. This is a pretty fair distance to walk if you are carrying a toddler.
We passed a news van or two and Lisa wanted to stop to give the Jeff Foxworthy joke; "It was Pandelirium!" We passed huge trees down in the road and folks already working with chain saws to cut them up. We passed the Little Ceasars I mentioned earlier where the employees were handing out food they'd otherwise have to throw out since they had no power.
We found my dad and his car and poured ourselves into it. We got a little turned around getting out of the area, but we made it home. Lisa and I were worried what our house might look like, but 3 miles to the North it looked like it had barely rained. And that was my brush with a Tornado.
I could give an update here, since it's now almost eight months later. Reese is still just as scared of storms as ever, if not understandably more so. The church is being rebuilt! Drive through the neighborhood now and it's evident some folks are still dealing with the damage. I'm forgetting some detail right now, that I'll add in later, but that's the story.
Most of these photos were taken by me the next day or so when we came to help clean up.