Since our altitude training camp in Santa Fe, NM, my teammate Carlos Alzate and I drove across the southern United States to the Southeast Criterium series opener in Athens Twilight. We traveled through Arkansas and stayed two nights in Huntsville, Alabama with former professional cyclist Matt Winstead; little did we know that the 2nd most deadly bout of tornadoes the Southeast United States has experienced in the last 100 years was following highway travels.
I wrote my thoughts in reflection the night after that traumatic day. I wrote by candlelight in a small notebook that I found in the house. I’ve left it mostly in its unedited form, mind you some sections of the original notes were completely indecipherable as I scribbled the story down late in the evening. In retrospect, writing my experience helped me come to grips with the experience and I send my condolences to all of the victims.
Traveling with the Wind
Where to begin? Today has been a long, interesting experience that will most likely stay fresh in my thoughts for a long while. I write this now by candlelight at our homestay in Huntsville, Alabama. For now, it appears that the worst has past however after multiple tornado systems trampled the entire state...(gibberish).
I first awoke to the familiar tone of my cell phone alarm clock, and scrambling to find it before I reached the “awake-point-of-no-return” a flash of lightning illuminated the interior of my room. Lying on a camping insulate in a borrowed sleeping bag, I awaited the thunder. The roar was immense. However following the second flash was a sound that I have only heard in the movie theatre and that of my nightmares. The siren, fading in, around and back again like that of a fog horn, announced the city wide alert. In knowing that storms had troubled neighbouring states only the day before, I assumed their sound meant tornadoes were on the way.
Out of bed, I gathered my clothes. Sweeping my pants off the floor and slipping them overtop of my compression tights, my polo over a synthetic undershirt. Once in the living room, I cautiously approached the window as flashes of light announced the arrival of the day. The siren seemed louder.
Should I awake our homestay? What should I do? As I approached his bedroom door to knock I heard the crackling ring tone of the telephone following closely by the sound of a worried conversation. Only key words made it to my ears: tornado, how soon? Okay, we are coming. When Matt came into the living room, our morning “hello” was brief. He said that his house is too light and the trees in his yard too big for it to be safe here. We were headed to his parent’s house ten minutes away for shelter. I knocked on my teammate, Carlos’ door. “Vamanos! Vamanos!” I don’t know many words in Spanish so instead of trying to explain I just repeated the message with urgency. “Training?” he replied. “NO! Tornado! Uno momento...Vamanos!”
Diving into the car shirtless, Carlos got it. Matt tore out of the neighbourhood as sheets of water blurred the windscreen. The road became a mirrored plane concealing all colors of road paint. The path ahead thus took upon the ominous shade as that of the sky above. Lightning crackled overhead and red brakes lights darted in and around the edges of our peripheral view.
Once at the house, we sat patiently for updates from the television. Our hosts politely offered us a cup of tea as if it were a pleasant summer’s afternoon. I appreciated the gesture and watched the TV in angst. Without warning the picture of the news coverage would switch to a black and white dialog box accompanied with a ear-blasting buzz. The mechanical tone announced that there was an active tornado warning for Madison, Lawrence & Morgan counties. I asked which county Huntsville was and Matt’s father replied “Madison”.
Although the linear red mass on the weather radar, which represents the height of the cell (also most commonly the front edge of the cell and the area which will mostly likely create funnels) had already passed over our town, the cell had yet to pass many communities to the south. The news person on the television were quickly describing the movements of the cell, estimating its path and its arrival time for each town downwind of the storm.
Thirty minutes later we were served a wonderful breakfast of oatmeal and raisins providing much needed familiarity after such a nervous start to the day. It was even sunny out when we arrived home, robins and squirrels scavenged the yard for worms and nuts as water continuously dripped from the roof line.
Being a rest day off the bike, I feel asleep during the first movie of the morning and laughed through the second. Still groggy from two long days of driving, we agreed to head out to a coffee shop for some internet and caffeine. Once there I checked the weather once more as a second cell was expected in the early afternoon. No riding today. At noon, I saw another string of warnings on the radar. I called our homestay Matt, who was now at work. He said to come over. Now!
As we threw our computers in our bags and walked outside the siren started again. Rain fell from the sky. Hard. A wall of black cloud appeared off to the southwest; the flag above strained in terror, pointing straight out to the northeast. Once in the car, I noticed that the other vehicles on the road were not acting normally. You could feel the impending danger amongst the other cars. Once on the highway, cars ripped past us with no concern for the speed limit, dare I say that I also drove very fast. I had the names of four streets in my mind, now I just had to make all the right turns. One missed left but I saw a big landmark and corrected; the golden arcs of a McDonalds. Peeling off the main road and through a suburb, I popped into the McDonalds parking lot where customers were still ordering from the drive-through!
The black wall, the leading edge of the cell was almost overhead. I ran to the front door of the four story glass office building in the lot adjacent of the McDonalds. The front doors were locked and the windows heavily tinted. I called Matt who said to come around to the side. Leading Carlos, we took off around the building, backpacks swaying left right left. It too was locked! Running back to the front, the sky above opened up and sheets of rain dropped upon us. The smooth cement became slippery underneath our team-issued street shoes. Thankfully the door was open upon our arrival and entered the glass house.
Inside I met more and more people as I ventured around the many corners leading to the core of the building. The entire office was gathered in the cafeteria and the furnace room, both on the first floor; there was no basement. Those in the cafeteria watched the red wave approach on the television screen, in the furnace room many texted their family members and only a few brave individuals looked out the southwest-facing windows, noses pressed up against the glass to block out the interior reflections created by the dark clouds outside.
After a while, we started to hear reports of damage in town. Trees down, telephone poles down. Apparently there was wind damage at a local high school and a few of the parents had children there. They were very worried.
As the cell passed, we were moved into the board room to check our emails and relax. Employees went out for lunch or headed back to their respective tasks. FEDEX deliverymen arrived and the flow of business resumed.
An hour later, once emails and sports highlights could no longer distract us from our hungry stomachs, Matt returned suggesting we go out for lunch before the next cell arrived in 3hrs.
The drive to lunch included police controlled intersections and downed trees but no significant roof damage. Unknowingly, we both ordered a salad; inferring that we both figured there wouldn’t be any time for bike riding that afternoon.
After lunch we returned to the coffee shop for faster internet and better coffee than at the office. Usually I have enough trouble falling asleep after just one coffee and as such I am still up writing this reflection. I emailed my coaching clients and finally got to watch the entire recap of my hometown hockey team’s playoff success the night before; all the while I kept a watchful eye on the weather. All wrath of red hazard zones were fast approaching from the southwest so once close, we again decided to leave for the office building. Although the drive was much more relaxed the second time, we arrived to a swath of spectators outside the main floor watching funnels drop from the clouds to the east. The cloud now dropping funnels had traveled over the coffee shop just as we left.
Back into the boardroom or was it straight to the furnace room, I forget. As people began to travel home around 5pm, reports began to stream in. A hospital, entire towns; trees falling and trapped residents; homes crushed. At 5.15pm the lights went out, apparently half the state. Another cell was approaching according the radio so I moved into the furnace room, organizing photos from the Santa Fe training camp to distract myself. When I entered a woman was in tears. She had just been in touch with her young family via cellphone (her oldest daughter babysitting the younger ones) when the storm passed her home. Now she could no longer reach them. She eventually got in touch with her neighbours, her son’s phone battery had stopped working and her daughter plugged her phone into the car outside as the power was off in the house. Nevertheless, people in her neighbourhood were hiding underneath the porches of their homes. More storms were forecast until 10.30pm, it was going to be a long night.
I stayed in the furnace room for above an hour, until my computer battery died. Then I moved back over the conference room for a snack of peanut butter and crackers. All we had now was one smart phone which was quickly dying, which we used to listen to the weatherman on the radio.
Despite the lack of power, the office building’s work day was still far from over. There had been troubles with the couriers late in the afternoon and certain packages needed to make it to South Carolina the next day. As the daylight faded (making it difficult to see new cells arrive overhead) and the lack of electricity turned the city streets into dangerous arteries of congestion, Matt left with his father (the owner of the company) to find an open courier office. One more cell was now on its way, 21minutes. We had to decide if we wanted to stay at the office building or travel back to Matt’s folk’s home. I opted to stay, I felt safer at the bigger building despite the prospect of missing dinner.
The ambient light faded, only lightning brightened the lobby. Without power, the building could not be locked as if it did return, a worker would have to turn on the AC cooling towers otherwise the presses and ovens used to create dental appliances would overheat. Matt’s mother (the company’s 2nd in charge) and I chatted in the lobby, staying on the lookout for people wandering around for shelter who we did not know. One of the loyal company mechanics soon arrived and to find a manual solution for the unlocked electronic door locks.
At 9pm the stars appeared overhead, the final cell had only been thunderous as opposed to tornadic. We decided to head home and prepare for tomorrow’s training. Walking from the glass house to the team Volvo, the lightning show to the east brightened our path. The air was now still, almost silent; but I still did not feel safe.
I am now at the homestay but I still do not feel safe. We have enough gasoline to make it to Atlanta tomorrow afternoon or at least enough to get outside of the power outage area. However flooding and fallen trees will now be our largest obstacles. Without power, traffic lights will also be slow going. Apparently a total of eight power towers were knocked out and some think the National Guard may arrive in the morning.
Many people lost their lives today. I feel it is difficult for me to write this. I usually only blog about cycling news, tossing in a sponsor friendly twist or a supporting plug; today is different though. The locals say this is the most tornadic cells ever seen in one day. In ‘74 it was one big cell that blew up the Ford dealership and that burger joint with the rollerskaters. In ’89 a single F6 funnel (the biggest category) rampaged through town, nearly claiming the life of Matt & his mother. Today’s large number of storm equals the intensity of those historical events. It’s figured that this was the most active weather day the area has experienced in recent history.
As I waited in the lobby earlier in the evening, lying prone over the carpet-covered cement floor, I listened to the owners discuss how to solve the cooling tower problem. Trying to stay distanced, I did not engage in the conversation, just zoned out. I just tried to distance myself from the situation. I have never been good with dealing with death; in fact, I seem to be unnervingly good at separating myself from a lot of things. Maybe that helps me do my job on the bike, I don’t know. But what I do know is that today I felt myself fall into survival mode.
Despite remaining calm throughout the day, the stress placed upon my shoulders is now pent up inside. Now in reflection, I feel that it has greatly affected me. My mind now races. I am not hungry, I cannot sleep and I do not know what we will find during our drive tomorrow. The candlelight is fading and I have almost run out of pages. I do not know if I have said what I was hoping, planning or thought there was to say; however one interesting note for the day is when I arrived here at the house and tried to find a task to occupy my time before bed I opened one of the many religious texts on our homestay’s bookself to the page titled: Continual Repentance (Book of Puritan Prayers & Derivations). Although I do not subscribe to any one faith, I thought that this was an interesting end to the day.
So may the spirit that leads you through life, also protect you.
April 28th: Huntsville damage (Article
May4th: Power back on for 97% of Huntsville (Article
Labels: Lifestyle, Special Topic