Rachael Rachael, a mom of two daughters, is a freelance editor and writer who enjoys gardening and dreams of keeping chickens in her suburban St. Louis backyard. In her spare time, she helps to edit her husband’s science fiction books. Read more of Rachael's work at www.rachaelsjohnston.com or contact her by emailing rachael@mumblingmommy.com.

It’s been a rough week in my community. On Wednesday, April 10th, an F2 tornado struck about half a mile to three quarters of a mile from my home. We were fortunate to have only a few small fallen tree limbs, and some of our yard toys got blown around a bit. The houses that took a direct hit are uninhabitable. Roofs were torn off. Jagged fallen trees and debris are everywhere. Street signs are twisted and mangled. Cars flipped. No one was killed or seriously injured, although one utility worker was later electrocuted while trying to restore power. It’s left our family feeling shaken yet thankful to be unharmed.

The day the tornado hit our St. Louis suburb, I was keeping an eye on the weather. Meteorologists had been warning all week of the potential for severe weather that day, including hail and damaging winds. I asked my husband, Josh, to put our glass-topped patio table and chairs in the shed. Josh also made sure our better car was parked in our one-car garage. We had a close call in 2011 when a tornado struck the airport two miles from our home. We knew to take weather warnings seriously, and Josh recently purchased a weather radio to put in our bedroom, where it will wake us if a tornado warning is issued at night.

The night of the tornado, Josh was in the living room playing a video game with our older daughter, Megan, when our weather radio sounded a little after 7 p.m. I hurried to the bedroom where the radio display was lit with the words “tornado warning,” indicating a funnel cloud had been sighted in the county. St. Louis County covers a large area, so we never know if a warning will actually affect us, but we don’t take chances. I scooped up our 17-month-old daughter, Abigail, and grabbed my purse and the diaper bag, and took Megan’s hand. We were halfway down our basement stairs before the county sirens started wailing. Josh was right behind us carrying the weather radio.

Once we were safely downstairs in our family room and playroom, I let the girls play while Josh and I tuned in to the local TV news stations where meteorologists discussed the radar images swirled with green and plenty of orange and red. Nothing imminently destructive was upon us at the moment, but something potentially serious was headed our way. Josh ran upstairs to fetch our cat from our sunroom where she had been lounging all day. Megan asked if she could use the potty upstairs. Josh encouraged us to go right away and be quick.

Around 8, the National Weather Service reported on our weather radio that the storm had weakened and was no longer a threat. Josh went upstairs to take a look at the storm. It was still raining hard and the wind was blowing like crazy. We decided to stay downstairs a little longer, especially when the local TV meteorologist said that despite the NWS report, he was still concerned about the storm in our area. We lost power minutes later.

Meanwhile, a quick sniff told me Abigail needed a diaper change badly. With a few flashlights providing light, I started to lay her down on the floor to change her when the weather radio reported a tornado had been spotted in our town, which is fairly small and doesn’t cover many miles. I picked Abigail back up.

“I think we should get under the stairs right now,” I said.

We went into our small, unfinished storage room and sat under the stairs with flashlights, with a spare crib mattress propped in front of us. I purposely left the mattress in our storm shelter area because it seemed like a good thing to use as a shield if things got dire. It also helped to contain the girls. The weather radio continued to chirp out information in our dimly lit hiding place, warning residents in the path of the tornado to expect roof damage, uprooted trees, or “complete destruction” of buildings.

We heard the storm roaring outside, and it left much room for the imagination. We heard rumbles and bangs, although it was hard to know at the time whether we were hearing thunder, debris flying around, or a tornado. Josh later told a relative, “We heard … stuff.” The cat, who we left free to roam the basement, crept over and sat near us, much to the girls’ delight.

Megan kept up a stream of chatter the entire time we were in our basement. She never expressed fear, but she did ask why we had to stay in the basement. We explained that during bad storms the wind can blow hard and we stay safe by getting away from windows where things can blow in and hit us. We emphasized that the basement is a safe place where we won’t get hurt. Megan seemed to revel in the adventure and novelty of it all. Even Abigail was well behaved, sitting calmly in my lap during the few minutes we huddled under the stairs. It helped that it was so dark she couldn’t see much beyond my lap.

The weather radio was our only connection to the outside world during that time. When the storm moved on to the other side of the Mississippi River, we ventured out. It was still raining. Our neighborhood was dark, and many dead branches – including one large branch that was more than 20 feet long and 5 inches in diameter – had blown down from a big tree in our backyard. The plastic lid had also blown off the sand and water table in the middle of our backyard and was resting on the patio up against the house.

Photos via stltoday.com.

Josh grabbed his cell phone, which he had forgotten upstairs during the storm, and started checking in with friends and coworkers on Facebook. It was immediately clear something bad had happened just minutes from our house. Friends reported homes and buildings destroyed or seriously damaged, roofs ripped off houses, trees on
houses and cars, and cars overturned.

People began to name a specific intersection that suffered the worst, and we estimated it is only half a mile to three quarters of a mile from our house, as the crow flies. It’s an area I regularly drive in while going to church or taking Megan to preschool. It’s an area filled with both middle class and working class homes. I thought of a home where I see young children playing on tricycles on mornings when I take Megan to preschool. I usually see a woman whom I assume is their mother wearing a staff t-shirt for a local day care facility. Their home may be uninhabitable now.

A strip mall anchored by a Dollar General store sits on the other side of the intersection, across a four-lane road that serves as a main artery through town. Josh and I celebrated our engagement in 2005 by eating dinner with friends at a restaurant there called Diamond Anna’s, which went out of business a few years ago. Our optometrist’s office is in the same strip mall. On mornings when I take Megan to preschool, I sometimes sit at the stoplight and see a woman in a beauty salon there open the window blinds and unlock the door to begin business for the day. Another home not far away has a small chicken coop in the back yard. It looks like a doghouse with a little outdoor enclosure where I often saw one or two chickens enjoying the fresh air. I’d love to have chickens in my yard like that, so I always look for the birds when I drive past. I wondered if they were okay.

Throughout the night, such specific images kept coming to mind, and I was anxious to see how bad it was. The power outage meant we could only gather news via friends who had walked or vainly attempted to drive through the area. Friends posted on our Facebook pages, asking if we were okay.

A continuous flow of traffic picked up on our street as vehicles were rerouted around the worst damage, and through traffic remained heavy late into the night. We put the girls to bed, leaving a tiny flashlight on next to Megan’s bed because she wanted a nightlight. The school district where we live and where Josh teaches called at midnight announcing schools would be closed the next day.

Power came back at 2 a.m., and we woke early on Thursday to turn on the TV. I had a clear idea of what to expect, but the images still shocked us. We got a stream of calls from concerned out-of-state family just before 7 a.m. As I chatted with my parents, I saw helicopters in the air outside my kitchen window. If I needed tangible proof something traumatic had happened in my neighborhood, a chunk of fuzzy insulation from someone’s house was plastered on the outside of the kitchen window.

Josh went out in daylight to check the house more closely for damage, and he pulled out our ladder to get a look at the roof. We also poked our heads into the attic to check for damage or leaks and found nothing. One of our basement window screens had popped out. We simply stuck it back in. We settled in for a day together at home. Our power restoration was short-lived. I was running the kitchen garbage disposal after cleaning up breakfast dishes when the power went out at 10.

Photo via stltoday.com.

We decided to bundle up and go for a walk around the neighborhood. The temperature the day of the tornado was in the 80s, but the storm had dropped the temperature to the high 40s. I pushed our double stroller a few blocks in the general direction of the hardest hit area before turning back. There were trees blocking the sidewalk and power crews and tree trimmers everywhere. Circling helicopters kept up a constant, low background noise.

Houses on our street escaped structural damage, but we saw wood and vinyl fences toppled by trees and a trampoline dangling from the corner of a roof. One street over, a large tree had fallen on a house, trapping a car in the carport and making entry from the front door impossible. A metal shed from one yard was banged up and sitting in a neighbor’s yard. We saw another house with a tree on it two streets down. A woman stood in the doorway telling a man on the front porch, “I’m going to have to get a new roof.” All over our neighborhood homes were missing sections of vinyl siding and gutters. Multiple random houses had peeling shingles and blue tarps spread over the roofs.

We got cold and headed home, where we hauled our fallen tree limbs to the curb and talked with some neighbors before going in to cook lunch, and later dinner, by lighting our gas stove with a match. Our power came back on at 9 p.m. Thursday. Some of our neighbors were still in the dark until late Friday afternoon. Josh returned to school Friday, although Megan’s preschool and schools in our immediate area remained closed because of power outages and because some streets were still not navigable.On Friday afternoon, Josh and I drove past the worst-hit area. When we were house hunting a few years ago, we looked at one there. I saw a blue tarp stretched across its roof. We drove past with Megan today, Saturday. She has a strange fascination with damaged buildings. They don’t scare her. She likes to gawk. While going to garage sales one summer, we passed a house that had burned and she repeatedly asked us to take her past it. It’s a good opportunity for us to talk about safety in fires or tornadoes, and we emphasize that firefighters, police officers, and other people are there to help us. Megan later set up a small dollhouse and told me it got knocked over by strong winds but that people were fixing it.

A local news station released a map Friday of the tornado’s track, with a large red stripe painted across our community noting the path the tornado took through the air, with small upside-down triangles pinpointing the locations where the tornado touched down. At one point, the tornado was in the air one block north of our street. Josh and I marvel at the difference a slight shift in the wind or a small change in the storm’s direction might have meant for us. We’ve talked about where we would go, who we would call for help, how we would care for our daughters, if our home was uninhabitable.

Preschool will resume next week. Megan says her teacher has a song about tornado safety. I’m sure they’ll be singing it. The street we usually drive to get to preschool remains closed, with access allowed only for residents. People will continue to clean up and rebuild. Our church, school district, and many in the community have stepped in to help. While we are grateful for our safety and that no one was killed during the tornado, it is both sobering and saddening to see familiar places so badly damaged. Over time, the visible signs of the storm will be erased, but our morning drive to preschool will never be the same.

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Category: Life Changes

Tags: preschool