As a psychologist, I thought I understood trauma and natural disaster from pretty close to the inside. I consulted in the Peachtree fire in Atlanta, did triage in the ER in the last lethal tornado in our North Georgia county, and have worked with combat veterans from every war since Viet Nam. I have taught in battered women's shelters and worked with crime victims and foster children taken from unspeakably painful homes.
As a songwriter, I also trespass on the territory of the broken hearted. I empathized with the victims of Katrina, and wrote a song from a story inspired by an Anderson Cooper piece on a man who lost his wife in the flood (Katrina), a song about 9-11 (Tuesday's Child). A song on my new CD, "I'll Take Love," is called Surrender - the plight of the difficulty in returning home for a veteran and his loved one. (Dale Ann Bradley, co-writer).
And it sounds so trite, yet no other way to say it, except you never really know until it happens to you.
On April 27, 2011, I was not at home in North Georgia. Like the call "wolf," hearing there were tornado warnings in Georgia was not any redder a flag than all the other times over the years. So I continued unloading the dishwasher. So strange the very human and mundane things we are doing when disaster hits.
When a friend called to say the tornado was on its way through the North GA, I was a little concerned. Then she mentioned the name of my very own road, near Cartersville. I then felt the first shock waves of disbelief.
Next I called my neighbor, Amy, always calm in the face of things, who said matter of factly, "Louisa, we've been hit." Within seconds I learned that two of my neighbors had plunged to the floor in their barn, where they went to check on the animals when the tornado hit, only to stand and find that their home and barn were reduced to rubble, all except a few two-by-fours in the kennel to which they fled. Well, all but - as we later learned - a kitchen wall with a cabinet in which the china was undisturbed. Outside - well, there was no outside then - the John Deere had been thrown 80 feet into the horse trailer, which was up in the trees, and all three cars were tossed like plastic toys from the five and dime.
Amy promised she would try to get to my house but the rain was pouring and everyone was still trying to find out if all the neighbors were alive in the black night. Our friends could not find some of their dogs, and feared at least one of their horses was dead. It was as if the images and words were travelling in slow motion, they were hard to digest. It seemed time was giving me time itself, to deal with reality.
Everyone has their own personal style of reacting to crisis. I found myself very still, and prepared - though you can't really prepare - I braced myself. I was aware of how little power I had to see if my old farmhouse, restored with love for two decades, or the giant oaks surrounding it, or the horses outside, were among the survivors. Times like that, you want to go to the things you love and almost nothing can stop you - but the winds and driving rain and threat of more tornados made travel through the mountains to get home impossible - and Amy said the roads were mostly impassible and houses were down everywhere - as much as they could see in the dark.
I called my neighbor Ted, who was still checking his barns and house. I learned of the first personal casualty - the giant tree outside the house where I used to live, the oak under which my daughter walked with her first pair of glasses and said, "Mom, look how many leaves that tree has!" The tree that heard banjos and fiddles from fall jam sessions for years. And marked time with its changing leaves, and housed the yellow birds in the spring.
I began to move; instruments by the door, phone calls to ready things to head to Georgia.
And that was a long sleepless night filled with the helplessness of being too far away.
Amy called again. She could not get down the road to check the house. Too many trees down, too dark to find a way through. Ted called, drenched, from next door and said that he had only been able to get part way to my house. It looks bare up there, Louisa, he said. The rain was so loud it was hard to hear. Did he mean bare as if the house was gone? Part of the roof was visible, he said. You mean on top of the house, or on the ground? I asked. Part of a burgundy tin roof, my roof, was in his drive many yards away. Flashlights were useless, he said, too dark, too rainy, but the lightening was like nothing people had ever seen, and when it hit, you could see ghostly visions everywhere you looked. Strange enormous sculptures in twisted shapes. Trees, tin, boards, things once precious turned into that faceless title of "debris."
For once I could hear the fear in Amy's voice as she told me the horses would run, they'd find a place to hide. But I knew she thought they'd be dead, from her voice.
Systematically I called all the adjacent neighbors. One by one, I learned everyone had survived. Two empty houses-- new construction placed oddly in the middle of pastures-- were leveled, rising and falling with never having had an owner except the bank.
My home, Woodsong Farm, was different. It was built around 1850, and lived in by a family of cotton farmers from 1903 until the remaining sisters died and I bought the old home place in 1996. It started as two rooms with wide pine planks, no plumbing, no kitchen, and two coal fireplaces. By 1949 it had another bedroom and dining room extending back from the original part, a porch, and three more fireplaces. Chalk-paint walls of planks pulled from barns and who knows where had been covered with floral wallpaper, now dingy, and the outhouse hole had been filled and a bathroom constructed. I'd taken the modern materials out by hand, revealing the pale green-blue ceilings and multi-colored plank walls; sanded and painted and fixed and shored up the old place. Twenty years of solace and solitude had passed amid the 4 giant oak trees surrounding the home.
Surely the spirits of the tough cotton farming family and the two sisters I knew so well, Gladys and Nell... a house made of wood on the inside nailed to wood on teh outside, wood from trees grown slowly, not overnight, would withstand this tornado like it had every other for 150 years.
But somehow I knew this time it was different, as if you fear hearing of a death, before you know the truth. I would have to wait a very long night to know if Nikki, Zip, and Woodsong Farm were among the survivors.