MOBILE, Ala. -- Like a wedding cake with its top layer removed, the house next door to my friend Eddie Curran’s abode now sits with its entire top half shorn off entirely. Nearly half the shorn-off roof, along with big tree limbs and unspeakable other debris, is wedged between that house and Eddie’s. But aside from a few shingles missing and two back windows blown in, Eddie’s house is remarkably unscathed -- save for the attic vent stack from the neighbor’s house that now sits peacefully on the bed of Eddie’s daughter, having blown through the window without causing much of any other damage to the room.
Welcome to the almost whimsical, hodge-podge (or hopscotch) footprints of the tornado that blew through the Midtown area of Mobile, Alabama on Christmas right at sundown -- the second tornado to hit Midtown in six days.
We’ve all seen the horrid footage of other “super-cell” tornadoes that level entire towns, leaving nothing standing at all. This wasn’t like that. Still a very strong storm, at a ‘2’ on the EF scale (winds over 110 mph), this tornado left a pretty bad five-mile path of destruction in Mobile, but in an almost unimaginably bizarre pattern. On badly hit Silverwood Street, where Eddie lives, you see two houses in a row with caved-in roofs, followed by a house barely touched at all, followed by another with major damage to one side, followed by another barely touched, and so on. On the other side of the street, four or five houses in a row are fine, followed by the worst of all, a house entirely ruined, completely crushed under the wake of a massive oak.
And everywhere one looked, every able hand was pitching in to help remove the detritus and shore up those homes that were unlucky. In one particularly poignant scene, dozens of volunteers stood in one large yard, assembling and cataloguing every piece of furniture and memento that could be rescued.
The good news: Amazingly, not a single injury was reported in the storm, even as 130 homes and businesses suffered serious damage. Some people survived in bathtubs as their homes crumbled around them. Others were away for Christmas. The Currans, oblivious to the fact that the heavy rain carried a tornado with it, had driven away no more than five minutes earlier to go visit Eddie’s father three miles away. Everywhere the story was the same: Homes destroyed, but human bodies entirely unscathed.
About five blocks south-southwest of Silverwood, Murphy High School -- an excellent and beautiful campus, the pride of the Mobile Public School System -- suffered almost unimaginable damage. Classrooms and athletic buildings are in ruins. An entire half of a very large and handsome roof -- known for its Spanish-style, terra-cotta tiles -- is completely gone. Wonderful old oaks are upended. Yet, again oddly, while the fence around the tennis courts is entirely mangled, the tennis nets rest placidly where they belong, not a rip or a tear or any other flaw in sight.
Two long blocks due north of Murphy, historic Trinity Episcopal Church (built in 1845) might be ruined. A quarter of its nave is destroyed. The wall of a large parish hall has been blown away. The remaining structure may be -- pray Lord it’s not, but it looks as if it might be -- unsound. This, for a church that just finished a million-dollar renovation just six months ago.
The storm obviously moved in a direction from south-southwest to north-northeast. It appears as if its actual contact with the ground was just about 200-yards wide. (This is not official; it’s just my guesstimate based on looking at the aftermath.) About 200-yards west of its westernmost edge -- five large houses away -- sits the home of my sister-in-law, Myrtle Milling. Fourteen paces from the front door of Myrtle, Jeremy, and the four children, a large wooden beam, almost certainly from Trinity, impaled itself nearly a foot into the ground of the western half of their yard. Its flight direction obviously was from south-southwest to north-northeast. Yet Trinity is to the east-southeast of the Millings -- and, again, the tornado’s landfall seemed to be 200 yards to the Millings’ east. Not an inch of the Millings’ house appears to be damaged. Neither are the four large houses to their east. Yet the beam came from the south-southwest, even though the church is to the east-southeast. Go figure.
Imagine the force of wind it must take to impale a wooden beam nearly a foot into solid ground. Now try to explain how that same wind managed to avoid damaging a house fourteen paces away. It boggles the mind.
Everywhere one looks, the storm’s same random cruelty is in stark display. This wasn’t the monumental disaster of weather that destroys an entire town; it was the nastily fickle destruction of a temperamental despoiler, interrupting some Christmas dinners, scaring the living daylights out of some Walgreen’s shoppers, completely exploding a day-care center and a photography shop, but leaving neighbors to these victims almost completely unscathed.
Major hurricanes have done far more damage to Mobile in the past nine years than this tornado did. But hurricanes give warnings; they can be tracked for days, sometimes even weeks. This thing -- this monster on a pogo stick -- came and went with the suddenness of a rattlesnake-strike, with sirens sounding about two minutes in advance and the duration of the hit at any one place no more than 30-seconds long. It was hideously vicious. Yet as awful as it was to those it chose to victimize, it left not a scratch on human flesh. Was its physical damage a ruination of Christmas, or was its odd mercy a Christmas miracle?
It is unlikely that science can ever explain the exact micro-bursts that comprise such a crazily random storm. It is unfathomable that some near neighbors can be left homeless while others remain just fine. A school and church lie terribly damaged; a block away from both, houses stand jauntily with Christmas decorations entirely untouched, with not a sign in the world that anything ever was amiss.
Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of storms? Only the shadow knows. Yet as the recovery crews labored and the neighbors helped neighbors on the day after the storm, as the local news teams provided admirably thorough and sensitive reports, and as Jim Cantore and the Weather Channel crew (I ran into them near Murphy High) tried to explain the science behind the previous day’s conflagration, the only thing visible to the unbiased observer was not in the least bit evil, but rather entirely salutary. Midtown Mobile will recover nicely. After Hurricanes Ivan the Terrible (2004) and Katrina (and its waves), this tornado (and the smaller one five days earlier) was hardly enough to drive a city to its knees. We may not know why it chose some houses to attack while sparing others right next door, but we know now that Murphy (High School)’s Law can apply: Not everything that can go wrong will necessarily go wrong after all.
Enough went wrong that there is great sadness, especially at a revered high school and a lovely old church. Recovery for the victims will take serious time and effort. But good-natured assistance will come from every direction -- flying in, beaming, as if on the wings of the storm.
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