On Tuesday afternoon, I picked up Ezra from school and I took all the boys up North to the new house. My husband was already up there, painting the hallway, so we thought we would do dinner out there and go for a nice stroll around the neighborhood before heading back into the city to put the boys to bed. Ezra only had a couple days of school left, and needed to catch up on some sleep after the long, tiring weekend we'd had.
It was a beautiful evening. After dinner, we noticed the sky clouding up a bit. They had only been calling for a slight chance of rain, last I'd heard, so we checked the radar on our phones. Storms were building and approaching the new house. The weather report broke in over the radio and said there was a threat of large hail. We had no TV at the house, so we were unable to see exactly what was going on, and we felt a little bit in the dark. We haven't fully moved up to the new house yet, so half of our stuff is there, while the other half, including our TV and storm radio, are down at the old house still.
I felt... uneasy. With any severe thunderstorms this time of year, tornadoes are possible. We have a tornado shelter at the new house as well as the old house, so we would have been safe at either place, but I felt my mama-bear instincts kick into gear, and I just wanted to be where we could be by a TV... where we could see & hear exactly what was going on. Our phone's radar images were not cutting it... half the time they wouldn't refresh and it was hard to tell what was really happening.
What was really happening was this, an extremely rare weather event. A severe storm was approaching the metro area from the North (up by where we were at the new house), but there was also ANOTHER severe storm approaching the city from the SOUTH. They were going to meet directly over the area of town where our old house is.
The storms seemed to be moving very slowly (looking back now, maybe the weather app on our phone was not updating properly?) and so we had the decision to make whether to hunker down at the new house, without anyway of knowing what was coming at us, or make a break for the old house, where we could be in our shelter AND have a TV and weather radio on hand.
I made the final call. We grabbed the boys, threw them in the car, with my husband following us in the truck, and we sped off for our old house, thinking we could beat the storms before they merged together and all hell broke loose.
This is the part of the story where I just want to go back in time and slap myself across the face. What was I thinking? I know I just wanted to be back in what was familiar... where I knew I could keep my little ones safe... but the risk in getting them back to their comfort zone was far too great. Hindsight is 20/20. The storms had sprung up so suddenly and unexpectedly... our decision was rushed and we made the wrong choice.
We sped back towards the city and as we got down the road a-ways, I could see the blackness of one storm to my left and the blackness of the other to my right. There was a small patch of blue sky almost directly over our heads, so I kept telling my boys to keep their eyes on that patch of blue and pray.
The blue patch disappeared very quickly. And the the sky turned a putrid green. I felt sick to my stomach, but tried to keep a brave face on for my boys. We were about halfway home.
As I stopped at a red light next to a Walgreens, the tornado sirens started going off. They were very loud, and the boys started to cry and scream. I was on the phone with my husband... panicking at this point and crying... quietly, so as not to freak the boys out even more. The hail started to fall on top of the car and it was deafening. As I started to go again after the light turned green, my husband told me we needed to flip around, do a U-turn, and head back to the Walgreens we had just passed. His windshield wipers had stopped working and he could not see. There was no way we were going to make it home.
Completely panicked and shaking, I flipped a U-turn and stopped again at the same red light. I was still on the phone with Chris and the boys were screaming and I couldn't feel my feet and suddenly I heard my husband, saying something like "Oh no! I'm gonna hit...."
My phone went flying. I felt hot pain up my back. His truck had completely locked up and slid into our car.
Now the boys were beyond hysterical. Looking back, I think Ezra thought it was a tornado that had caused our car to crunch and jolt. I tried to calm them all down, all the while wondering if a tornado was bearing down on top of us that very second. I could not see anything. I had no idea what was going on. The light finally turned green and I floored it into the Walgreens parking lot. The employees were just shutting up the doors... bolting them against the storm and the hail.
Without even turning off the car, I gathered up the screaming kids, Chris grabbed Truman in his car seat, and we ran for the door. When we got inside, soaked to the bone, pelted with hail, the employees looked just as scared as we were.
"Is there a TV?!", I yelled. "Where is your TV?!"
A young guy pointed to the back office, where another employee was hooking up a mini-DVD player to a tiny little antenna so he could get the local news channel.
Looking back now, this was a total providence from God, this little set-up they had, because a few moments later, all of the power in the store cut out. It was pitch black.
"Where is your safe-spot?", I asked, nearly out of my mind with fear, clutching Myer and Ezra, who were beside themselves.
A lady led us to a large walk-in refrigerator in the back of the store. We slunk inside, wet to the bone and shivering. Chris grabbed some towels off of the shelves in the darkened store and wrapped us up in them. In my mind, at this point, I was picturing all of the worst-case scenarios. I pictured myself shielding my boys with my own skin, praying the earth would swallow us up as a tornado ripped apart everything above and around us. I pictured the way it would sound in my ears... the screams and the wrenching of it all. I pictured my life being forever changed, or forever ended.
But for now, everything was calm. The sound of the hail was deadened by the metal walls of the refrigerator, and all I could see were cases of soda being lit up by the beams of a couple of shaking flashlights. Chris kept his eye on the battery-powered TV in the office. There was a tornado on the ground, but it was not near us. There were reports of 6-inch hailstones. Straight-line winds of 80mph were knocking over power lines and causing power-flashes around the city. Car windows and house windows were shattering alarms were going off everywhere. Lightning strikes were causing fires around the city.
We sat in this state of terrifying unknowns for an hour. More storms were building behind the first ones, which had met right over our old house and twisted around each other like a tiny hurricane. Should we head for home before another wave came? Should we stay put and risk not being able to get underground, where we'd be sure to be safe? The mama-bear in me was frantic for home. I felt like a wild animal... I had to get home or I felt I was going to die. My husband wisely decided we needed to wait a little while longer, to be sure we would be okay, before we tried to move again.
The storms finally started to weaken, and we decided to make a break for it. We had no idea if we'd even be able to get home due to power lines and trees down everywhere, but it was late and dark and we needed to try. We loaded up the boys, who had become very calm and quiet over the last hour, and who were being brave little champions, while their mommy felt like jello inside.
We cautiously made our way home. It was dark, so we couldn't see all the damage, but we caught glimpses of it in our headlights. All the street lights and traffic lights were out.
We finally made it home. Our neighborhood looked like the apocalypse. The streets were covered in branches and leaves. Car windows and house windows were busted out everywhere. Our neighbors were taking shelter over at our house because they knew we weren't at home that evening and the shelter was free. We all began to share our stories of the evening, as the kids huddled together in the living room and we vacuumed up all of the broken glass from the carpets.
Our house took a major pounding. The wood siding has big holes in it. Chunks of our fence were broken clean off. The glass patio table shattered into a million pieces, and the hail stones had broken through both the storm windows and the screen and the interior windows of the boys' room and left debris and rain and broken shards everywhere.
But we were safe.
As the adrenaline started to wear off and we finally tucked our boys safely into our bed, I became aware of the shooting back pain I was having. The whiplash from the collision had done a number on me, but thankfully all of the boys were unharmed. The pain has been easing up quite a bit over the last 48 hours, and for that I am grateful.
We will never ever attempt to drive in a severe storm ever again. Lesson learned. And I beg of all of you fellow Midwesterners to remember this story and follow suit when faced with the same decision. Stay put! Hunker down! It's not worth the risk of being stuck in your car when things get scary.
Now we begin the process of cleaning up and moving to the new house (which, thankfully, had no damage) and trying to heal from the memory of that night. I have felt very frail the last couple of days, but writing this all out and diving back down into the memory, painful as it may have been, has been helpful.
So, thank you all for listening. You are good medicine. :)