Saturday, February 1, 2014

What's our best storm story?

This week when we finally got back into the world, or for some, back to home sweet home, it’s  all we can talk about.  Snow and ice, and what happened to you and yours?

We all have a storm story to tell, even if we just worried and fretted about our someones, whilst home warm and dry.

The irony of my storm story is we didn’t HAVE TO BE THERE – trying to make my Tuesday morning doctor’s appointment. But, the doctor’s office was open, schools weren’t cancelled, and business was as usual and the prediction was for a “light dusting.” Seeing only a few flakes, we took off in the trusty four-wheel drive Chevrolet pick-up truck (my new hero vehicle), confident we’d make it to St. Vincent’s and back just fine and dandy, like molasses candy (as Mac Pardin of Camden fame often says).

But, we didn’t make out fine and dandy, like molasses candy, or any other kind. Rather, even though we cancelled the appointment and aborted the mission about 10 minutes in, we got stuck in traffic moving slower than molasses candy, and it took seven hours to get the few miles back to our home.

On the way, we saw beautiful snow, in flurries rarely seen in Alabama; we saw cars sliding down hills backwards. We saw white-knuckled drivers on all sides (and inside), and we saw lots of people at their best in time of trouble.

We ate some great barbecue at Saw’s in Homewood (after smelling the aroma while sitting in front of the place for about 20 minutes in no-moving traffic). We met a guy there who had Selma and Camden connections. Then, we were on our slow way, trying some back roads, then thinking the interstate would be the best bet and less icy.


On I-65, we saw the mother of slippery traffic jams.  We saw redneck drivers who raced up the side of the static interstate just to turn in and spin tires, blocking everyone else’s possible route.

But ten times more, we saw courtesy, politeness, and good Samaritan-ship breaking out all over. We saw patience in its best and long-lasting form, as we inched up I-65, at about minus-one-mile-an-hour.

We saw businesspeople in suits and heels hoofing it up the interstate, having abandoned their non-4-wheel drive vehicles.  We saw people running out of gas. We saw folks dash from their cars to the snow covered roadsides, where they tipped, slipped and slid down the incline to answer nature’s call. Me, I admit it, answered it in a Styrofoam cup -- sitting, eyes closed and mind trying to transpose myself elsewhere.  TMI?

We offered a ride, our back seat, heat and a half a barbecue sandwich to a man and his 4-year-old daughter, Georgia, who were walking along I-65 after having to abandon their vehicle. We probably moved them forward 50 feet in the nearly stand-still traffic. But it was help, nonetheless, and a pleasure to meet them. They lived about a mile away, off the Alford exit, where cars backed up to what seemed like infinity.

Turns out the dad works with my husband’s cousin, and he knew this one and that one from Selma and Camden, where we made home for many years. There’s always, it seems, a Selma and Camden connection. It is small world; that’s true in crisis and regular days. 

Because traffic just inched as we waited and got to know each other, the man and daughter, warmed and fed, decided to walk the rest of the way. I’m sure, I hope, they were home before we made the Alford exit ourselves. His school teacher wife was spending the night with students at her school, and dad just wanted to get that baby girl home. Their story and our story -- and the stories of all those people in all those vehicles -- were repeated throughout central Alabama, in Atlanta and beyond.

Finally off I-65, at Alford Avenue, we eased toward the backroads, inching onto sparkly white lanes edged with abandoned cars. We saw folks walking in various stages of dress (I don’t know how many times I thought, “Oh man, You need a hat!”). Most walked with steady determination, head down, arms swinging, feet carefully placed.

The whole scene reminded me of some apocalypse movie or one of my Stephen King books (The Stand, maybe), where only a few folks were left wandering a barren landscape. We inched our way through, up and down hills and through tight obstacle courses of cockeyed, snow-spotted Hondas and Kias, Fords and Chevys, decorated with icicles and an occasional note.

Then, almost home, the traffic stopped again, an accident road block on narrow Old Rocky Ridge Road, but we followed a Jeep and another pick-up as they turned right through the back entrance of an apartment complex, and exited on the other end of that logjam.

Finally, we got home, home to a winter wonderland-looking house and stories of family members walking in the snow from abandoned cars, to nieces and nephews stuck at school, to a brother-in-law who spent the night on I-459. Another friend spent the night at a Mexican restaurant. We felt very lucky, and – bonus! – we already had milk and bread.

I don’t know what could have been done differently to avoid the catastrophe that was winter storm Leon in the South, but I think we learned some lessons and a little bit about ourselves.

James Spann, Birmingham’s meteorologist-emeritus, apologized. He owned the bad forecast, and I think that’s big of him. It’s not an exact art, weather forecasting. The governor declared a state emergency for Tuesday, on Monday, but no one of authority (or most of us without it, for that matter) in Birmingham and surrounds thought that meant them (believing that line on the weather map) so there were few school cancellations or business closings. And then, mass exodus and chaos.

Preparedness is a lesson (I hope) we learned. I’ve heard more than one stranded storm survivor talk about their luck at having warm clothes in the car, water, some snacks. Others had just the clothes on their backs.

Being married to a boy scout and having raised one, (and having a Daddy who always said to keep a coat and warm clothes in my usually-third-hand car in the wintertime), we were pretty prepared. We had snacks and supplies.

Still, even though my little SUV – which spent the storm in the garage where it belongs -- has most everything needed on the ice-snow emergency kit list except kitty litter, I am adding to that list of things I’m really going to get to soon in 2014: a fully-functional car ice-snow emergency kit. I already have a list of at-home emergency kit items, but not yet gathered, not compiled. But,I have the list (try

When weather turns a community upside down, separating families and causing accidents, including fatalities, it changes our perspective. It just proves you never know what’s coming. James Spann didn’t even know. 

Just as the April 2011 tornadoes left us ultra-alert for tornado threats and warnings for months afterward, the snow of January 28, 2014 will likely leave us more aware, less willing to take chances, less trusting of weather forecasts, more willing to allow students and workers to stay home, and, hopefully, be better prepared. At least for a while.

Another thing we learned, maybe the most important of all, is that when push comes to shove and slip comes to slide, we can count on each other.

Most folks showed their best, most helpful and tough-skinned selves. And, that may be the best storm story of them all.

Song of the day:
Shelter from the Storm, Bob Dylan (1974)

Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Picture of the day:
View from the truck Jan. 28, 2014

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