On Sunday, we drove north on Interstate 85 from Georgia, and my eyes turned to the skies. I’ve always done this when weather threatens, ever since an ancient oak tree that stood in my backyard landed on the house during a tornado.
In fact, two oaks stood there, twins. My father placed a pile of sand under one of them, where I’d play for hours and where, years later, we’d bury the ashes of our dogs.
I was 10 when the largest oak fell. Watching from a side window as limbs flew through our yard, I heard a screeching like my twin beds were scraping across the floor unassisted – a real “Wizard of Oz” moment – but I found them completely still. I ran down the hall and into the family room just in time for the crash. In the days after, the backyard felt like a wonderland, the branches of the giant oak finally climbable. Someone counted the rings, and we learned it was 200 years old. (A tornado would take the second tree when I was grown.)
I’ve often been a magnet for weather wonders. As teens, my friend and I stood in her backyard when a fiery lightning bolt came from out of nowhere and struck her chimney – close enough for us to hear it hiss, for every hair on our heads stand on edge.
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Other times stand out: huddling in our tiny hallway with my infant daughter in our Atlanta house, the television on a chair, as a series of tornadoes cut through the city. My husband worked for the power company, and I could see him on the black and white set with his sleeves rolled up, reporting on outages. Home alone with the baby, I was terrified.
Later, when we lived in Winston-Salem, another tornado blew down the fairway of a nearby golf course. We lost a tree in that storm, and the kids found the nest of Robin babies we’d been keeping our eyes on. Their mother was lost.
The one weather wonder we were safe from, though, was a hurricane. Those giant funnels swirled over water and danced along coastlines, so as long as we stayed away from the beach, we’d be fine. Right?
But that fall, Hugo roared his head from the Leeward Islands all the way to Charlotte. My husband had started a new job in Raleigh, so the kids and I huddled in the dark basement as the windows rattled around us, our only protection a Fisher-Price flashlight with an automatic one-minute cutoff.
By this time, whenever storms approached, I paced the floor, watching the skies. A month after Hugo, we moved to Raleigh, where my friend Grace’s house had been blown apart by the famous Tornado of ’88. Now I had company in my unsettledness. During tornado warnings we’d call each other, comparing notes about safe places in our houses, filled with windows.
Then in 1996: Fran. I had the piano tuned that day. I remember, because as he was leaving, the tuner looked out from the front porch and said simply: “The wind is picking up a bit.”
A bit. As the hours passed, Fran’s winds wrapped the house, swishing the treetops across the sky like windshield wipers stuck on high. When the first tree fell, grazing the house and shaking every inch of it, we grabbed the kids in the dark and made our way downstairs to where the dog was trying to dig out of her crate. The kids fell asleep again, somehow, serenaded by the lullaby of exploding transformers and falling trees. It is a night I never wish to repeat.
Daylight revealed trees down everywhere. Roads blocked. Holes in roofs. Down the street at Grace’s house, it was as if God’s hand had caught the falling trees and placed them on her roof — not one had broken through. “Give me a tornado any day,” she said that morning. “They’re over in a few seconds.”
But in the end, the sun always comes out. The skies cleared and the scent of pine filled the spaces where trees had stood. Somehow our city would be made new, and it was.
I thought about this as we drove north last week, cars bearing Florida tags alongside us most of the way. What would they go home to? Fran’s winds were gentle breezes compared to Irma. And Harvey.
My daily prayers have included them all, plus my friend, Ann, who was stuck on the island of St. John last week. I can’t imagine the terror. I lost nothing during Fran, though my sense of safety felt bruised. Many survivors of Harvey and Irma lost all they hold dear: Family. Home. Job. All vanished in monstrous swirls of water and wind.
Now, as the winds die and waters recede, they’re looking for hope that all will be made new, eventually. It will be up to every one of us to find a way to show them that the sun will eventually shine.
Susan Byrum Rountree is director of communications for St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh.