“Why, Mommy?” Ever since Prinny said her first words, I have gotten that question at least two dozen times a day. As a parent, you’re used to the incessant questions ranging from why the sky is blue to why she has to eat her vegetables and clean her room. Those are questions that I know how to answer. But after last Wednesday night’s string of devastating tornadoes through the South, leaving a path of death and destruction in their wake, there was one question that I wasn’t prepared for: “Why Mommy? Why did this happen?” There are some things, Baby Girl, that Mommy just doesn’t have an answer for. How do you explain something to your child that you don’t even understand yourself?
Being from Mississippi, tornado warnings are a way of life. You hear the siren go off in the middle of the night and you know you’re going to spend at least the next thirty minutes in the bathtub with your pajamas on. People often relate Oklahoma to tornados but some of my earliest childhood memories are of having tornado drills at school. I remember one particular tornado that ripped through Columbus, blowing the MUW clock tower to the ground as effortlessly as a child blows at a dandelion. Yet even still, the high pitched whirring of sirens is an all too often occurrence, and honestly, I had almost become immune to the reality of what a tornado can really do. But that all changed last week. While the town of Columbus was cloaked in darkness, people hosting tornado parties and families making S’mores by candlelight, people to the north, south, east and west of us were living in moments of terror and uncertainty. I remember seeing the image of this monster of a tornado looming over the city of Birmingham, the likes of nothing I had ever seen, and praying out loud to God asking Him to be with those people. I can not imagine the fear in their hearts as they were cowering in their bathrooms, hallways and closets, holding their children and loved ones close, praying for the nightmare to be over. Waking up Thursday morning, the images on the news looked like something off of a movie set. Entire towns had been wiped off the map, countless people were dead and even more were missing. A mix of emotions washed over me: feelings of shock, disbelief, heartbreak and a guilty feeling of gratitude that my own town had been spared. I knew I had to help. The next day I went to Smithville, Ms and the magnitude of the desolation there and in communities across the South is something that you truly have to see to believe. Mother Nature had let down her wrath like a hammer and not a speck of that town had been spared.
I drove into what was left of Smithville in stunned silence. Not a single house or building had been left untouched by the unforgiving storm. Trees had been pushed over like daisies and cars were crumpled up like aluminum foil. The Highway Patrol had barricaded the town and the National Guard drove around on Humvees while countless Search and Rescue volunteers dug through the rubble. I got out of my car and just stood in silence; it was if my mind needed a moment to catch up with what my eyes were seeing. I stood in the middle of the street and turned in a circle; it looked like a bomb had gone off in the middle of town. There was total devastation everywhere you looked and I struggled to find some remaining hope that not all had been completely lost. I checked in with the Red Cross and there was so much to do that there was nothing to do, it was absolutely overwhelming. So I grabbed my camera and started walking. I immediately ran into a man and woman whose parents had died when their home had collapsed on top of them and I watched this grown man stand in front of me and cry like a baby because he didn’t know how to cope which such a loss. I came across the remnants of what used to be a mobile home and stood in what I can only imagine would have been the kitchen because the only thing left was bits of checkered linoleum of the floor. The more I walked, the heavier my heart became and it took every once of strength I had not to sit down and cry. Then I met a man. Sitting on a pile of bricks and smoking a cigarette, I first saw him through the lens of my camera. Somehow, in the middle of all of the turmoil around him, he managed to look peaceful. I approached him and just sat with him in silence for a while. He then started telling me how he had lived in his home for over 30 years, how his children had grown up here and the memories he had. With his small wood frame home measuring less than 1,000 square feet, he had tried to find safety in the hallway by the kitchen when the tornado hit. Pinned under a fallen refrigerator, he had lain there helpless, waiting for someone to come find him and help him out from under the ruins of his home. Yet he was grateful; grateful for his life and grateful that his family had too been spared. The more people that I talked to, the more I heard the same version of the elderly man’s story. Yes, the buildings had been destroyed and the loss of life was unspeakable. But the spirit of Smithville was very much alive and well.
Driving home that evening I realized I had a renewed sense of faith. Not just in the people of Smithville or those affected by the storms, but in us as a people. There are some things that you just can’t make sense out of, things there simply isn’t an answer to. Last Wednesday night isn’t about the “Why?” but about the “How?” How do we recover and begin to heal? That answer can be seen in the outpouring of love, neighbor helping neighbor and the grace of God that has overwhelmed the storm damaged South. And that answer is something that I don’t have to tell my daughter. I can show her.0