Jul 13, 2014

The tornado

When I was at Alabama, I tutored a third grader at Englewood Elementary School in Tuscaloosa. She needed help with reading and math because, as her teacher told her, "You can't graduate to the fourth grade unless you pass the ARMTs."

I was very unhappy at Alabama when I started tutoring her. It was right before I applied to transfer to Johns Hopkins University. My "little sister" didn't fit in that well with the Southern-belles-in-training in her class, and she was often the only white girl hanging out with black students. Being the only Northerner at an Old South school, I felt some affinity.

The last day I was going to tutor my "little sister", April 27, there were a lot of tornado sightings. I was worried about driving in the weather, but I didn't want to let her down, so I called my mom for advice. While I was on the phone, I heard on the radio that Englewood closed early for the day, so I decided not to go.

I went back inside my dorm, and the power went out almost immediately. The hall lights were still on--they have a separate generator for emergencies--and I remember walking outside to find the head RA to ask why my dorm lights were off.

Walking back, I noticed no one else was outside. I tried to call my mom on my cell phone, but there was no service. When I was finally able to contact my mom, I found out that an F-5 tornado had hit Tuscaloosa just outside of campus. (I read that the University wasn't hit because it's so close to the Black Warrior River, and the air pressure shifts around rivers make tornadoes less favorable.)

Some of my friends weren't allowed back in their apartments due to potential gas leaks, so they stayed on my couch for a few days. We waited with suddenly homeless neighbors in long lines for free boxed lunches at the cafeteria. Some areas, like nearby Alberta, where people lived in homes without basements or in trailers, were completely flattened. Finals were cancelled, and students were encouraged to leave campus. (The rowing team still had practice, although I had quit the team the year before.) My mom booked a last minute flight to Atlanta, and I packed everything in my red Honda CR-V, drove two hours to Atlanta to meet my mom, and then continued sixteen hours back to New Jersey. I haven't been back to Alabama since.

I never heard from my mentee again, although I sent a letter and a birthday gift (a Club Penguin stuffed animal) to her foster mom's house. Their neighborhood wasn't hit in the storm, so I'm sure she's safe.

-Paige