It was the day before our 41st anniversary. Mary Lou and I were headed home from Auburn and decided to try to make it back to Donalsonville before the predicted bad weather hit. We drove along Alabama 169 near Beauregard, as we usually do when making that trip.
It wasn’t until a couple of hours later that we learned of the devastating tornado that hit the area just a mile or two away from where we traveled. Twenty-three people were killed, including three children. A gentleman we had met this past year lost 10 members of his family.
We have lived in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael for over five months now. Almost every week I become aware of some new bit of our landscape reminding me of how much we have lost. I knew that I had to visit the area of Lee County, Alabama where the tornado had hit, but I was not looking forward to seeing the aftermath of yet another natural disaster.
I spent an hour or two this past week touring the rural areas where this tornado left its deadly mark. It was painful to see, especially since my own community’s wounds from Hurricane Michael have yet to heal.
It is estimated that the winds of this tornado were around 170 miles per hour, stronger than any tornado in the United States last year. Those winds were higher than the sustained winds of Hurricane Michael, yet the amount of area that was impacted was much, much smaller. I could not help but think about the differences between hurricanes and tornados, especially after seeing the damage up close.
Hurricane Michael left hundreds of thousands of acres of timber snapped and flattened. Some big stands of pines were like a perverse work of art. The trees seemed to snap at the same heights with all the trees falling in the same direction. It was like a bit of order in the midst of chaos.
The scene from the tornado was much harsher and more twisted. There was no order at all in this chaos. The trees did not snap; they twisted at all heights and in all directions. Where the tornado touched down there was complete devastation, yet a few hundred yards down the road homes might appear unscathed.
Forty-three people died from Hurricane Michael. It was a monster storm with hurricane force winds in a 90 mile wide path. Overall, the storm was about the size of the state of Colorado. It was still Category 3 when it hit Seminole County, a hundred miles inland.
Twenty-three people died from the Lee County tornado. It left a path up to a mile wide and was on the ground for 26 miles in Alabama. For some areas there was only a ten minute warning, but for many in that very rural area, there was effectively no warning at all.
Tens of thousands of blue tarps were distributed in Southwest Georgia alone, far from the near total devastation of Mexico Beach, Florida. When I attempted to deliver some of our remaining tarps to the damaged areas of Lee County, I was told there was no need. The homes either did not need a tarp because they had no damage or the homes no longer existed at all.
Which is worse? It depends on where you are located. There is not much difference between homes washed off their foundations in Mexico Beach due to the storm surge or homes lifted off their foundation by a tornado in Lee County. If it is your home, it is equally devastating.
In the aftermath of witnessing these two deadly storms I am left with two enduring thoughts. The fury of a massive Category 4 hurricane or a F4 tornado is almost beyond description, especially if you live through the worst of it.
My other lasting thought, which I witnessed in the aftermath of both events is the way people far and wide responded to those in need. Neighbor helping neighbor; stranger helping stranger.
One thought is a nightmare; one is the answer to a prayer.
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]