When School Visits Go Wrong

I was really excited last week to be going to Alabama. A bookseller who helps out his local schools by contacting and coordinating authors from all over the nation chose me to visit. I was very honored.

The first school visit went well. They welcomed me with a dazzling display in their window. The kids were so smart and I loved every moment! This was going down as one of my best visits. Here's a pic of their welcome! It says: "PAM + CALVERT = VIP" in a nod to my math books. Very clever!

The next day started out no differently. The school welcomed me with a huge poster signed by all the students and the library was decorated with TONS of cute glasses on everyone and everything. Take a look:

I knew there had been reports that we were to receive bad weather later in the day, but thought nothing of it. Of course. I'd lived in tornado alley cities much of my life and really only had one scare to show for it. But in the middle of my third session, right before lunch, we were told to go into the hallways and take cover. I wasn't frightened at this point. The librarian had the weather radar on her t.v. and we could see the red zone was to our north. Nothing to worry about.

The poor children had to wait in the hall for nearly an hour. They did so well trying to be quiet. Since there was no impending danger, I sat in the library signing books and discussed how I'd make up my last session the next day. By this time, my stomach was growling. They'd offered me the sandwiches they were giving the children for lunch, but I thought I'd get something later.

Wrong decision.

As I was dropped off at my hotel, I waved good-bye to the coordinator, and ventured into my room. I was about to walk over to Applebees when I thought, "It's raining so hard, I'll wait until it goes away and get an early supper."

So, I fell asleep.

In my dream, people I knew were hiding in the lobby of the hotel, and I was discussing things with them as a loud tornado siren blared in the background. I felt the noise was so realistic. And then suddenly, I woke up to an ACTUAL air horn blasting outside.

This was no dream.

My hotel phone rang, and I was told to go into the hallway to take cover. This lasted about two minutes as everyone congregated to the floor to ceiling window filled lobby. Curiosity sent all of us outside. Video cameras caught a large swirling wall cloud several miles away pass us by. In the meantime, the power went out. I was trapped out of my room.

During all of this, a few people came to the hotel wanting to check in but knew there was no use, so we all chatted, not knowing the horrible destruction happening around us, only a few miles away. I'd been in a tornado before--I knew when to be alarmed. Dirt clods, insulation, debris drops out of the air. I didn't see any of that.

After about thirty minutes, the storm had passed. It was time to go back to my room. The power was still not on. I was sooo hungry. But nothing around us had power. The Applebees staff went home. We watched them drive away.

And even more storms were coming.

In the darkness of my hotel room, I talked with my husband and daughter on my cell, then decided to go to sleep early. I figured someone would alert me if I had to take cover again. And sleeping would help abate my ever growing hunger. I turned on the light next to me, hoping the power would come on later, waking me.

It never did.

In the morning, everyone in the hotel was up, talking about what had happened. Reports from the hotel staff told us there was no power for miles--a major electrical artery had been severed. There wouldn't be power for at least three to five days. My cell phone wouldn't work--the cell phone towers were down. The man who was supposed to pick me up did not come at the expected time.

There I was--stranded in Alabama with no way of getting home. Everything was closed. The hotel only had a few muffins and bottled water to feed us. Before panic could set in, a man who was leaving for Kentucky with three of his co-workers offered me a ride to the Nashville airport where I could fly back home. I had to make a decision quickly. I was worried about my school visit contact, but knew it would be better for everyone if he didn't have to worry about me. So, I took the ride. On the way to the airport, I caught some of the destruction along the road. Here are some of the images I saw:

This is a billboard that was mowed down as if it were a paperclip.

Here is a mangled 18 wheeler filled with volatile liquid. You could see the dirt and grass it must have dug up as it was dropped from the sky.

                                                                                                                                                                         This might be harder to see but the trees are uprooted, many of their tops have been ripped off and blown to bits.

The school librarian that I was supposed to visit that day contacted me yesterday. They still do not have power to the schools and are closed. She said, "(Our town) looks like a war zone where bombs have leveled blocks and blocks of businesses and homes. I just can't describe the enormity of this tragedy!" There have been 351 deaths from these storms in Alabama alone. All I can say is I feel very thankful to be able to come out of that storm alive, well, and without injury. The people in the hotel did not take that storm seriously, myself included. If the tornados had decided to come our way, there would have been nothing to protect us.

I'm praying for those who lost their loved ones and for the people who have lost homes and businesses. This will be one school visit journey I'll never forget. May God help the people suffering from this tragedy!


Stephanie Reed said...

Thanks for sharing your story, Pam. If it's any comfort to you, most people don't take tornado warnings seriously. Storms like this come along once or twice in a lifetime. I lived about as far from Xenia, Ohio in 1974 as you were from the tornado zone in AL. This is the first time I've seen anything that surpassed the devastation in Xenia. Incredible. I join you in prayer.

Evelyn said...

I'm so thankful you're safe, Pam. I have relatives in Tuscaloosa and thankfully they're safe also, but the situation for so many, many people is incredibly sad. I, too, join you in prayer for them.