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Tennesse – A Mother’s Terrifying Brush With Tornadoes

A tattered flag unfurls across a backdrop of tornado devastation.

On April 27, 2011,  a series of tornadoes struck Cleveland, TN.   All afternoon and into the night, Aranda Smith and her family took shelter in closets while their house shook under pressure from the wind. You can read Aranda’s full story below.

Emergency Management officials reported 354 tornado-related fatalities in April alone, and close to 3,000 injuries across seven states. Nearly 7,000 buildings, including homes, have been destroyed.

Aranda’s essay is the first of many to come on the subject of how our lives are shaped by where we live. We welcome your submissions. Published essays will be archieved on the Nifty Fifty page at the Family Field Guide website.  This post is dedicated to all those who lost homes and loved ones during this devastating tornado season. (Photo courtesy of AmericanRed Cross, Pikes Peak Chapter.)

The Day I Learned to Love Housework

By Aranda Smith

As a wife and mother I have the duty of housework, but I don’t feel like cleaning most of the time.  Things were put into perspective for me on April 27, 2011, a spring day that started out with the sun shining and blue skies. We had all heard it was going to get bad in Cleveland, Tennessee, but no one could prepare us for what would take place in mere hours.

I had the day off, which is a good thing. I deliver pizzas and weather can be a major factor in sales.  This day, however, was filled with visits to the doctor and grocery shopping.  I had seen the weather reports and knew we were going to have bad weather. In the South, storms are common this time of year, so weather was the last thing on my mind.  I had taken my youngest daughter to her doctor’s appointment around 8:30 a.m. and then to school around 10:00. I went to the grocery store and came home to unload.

At this point, the weather report said we had a nine-in-ten chance of a tornado.  Shortly thereafter I got the call from my girls’ school. They were letting out at noon.  At 11:30 I jetted over to bypass the traffic and then went back to the doctor’s office to try and get my oldest daughter into her appointment early, before all hell broke loose.

And that is exactly what happened.  I called my mom, who lives with us, and asked her to go ahead and fix supper. I knew a power outage would likely occur.  I got home around 3:00 p.m., about 15 minutes before the first wave hit.  We didn’t even have time to eat, but quickly cleaned out the two hall closets, gathered flashlights and put fresh batteries in them. We collected blankets, pillows, bike helmets and hard hats. Everyone in the house put on shoes, including me.

Then we waited; my two girls, my mom, my sister, her one month old son, and my sister-in-law who is due in October.  The storm hit and the power went out, as had been expected.  No weather channel, no radio, and no clue as to what could potentially be heading our way.  Minutes passed by like hours.  It took 20 to 30 minutes for that wave to pass and we could breathe again.  When we felt it was safe, we came out of our makeshift storm shelter and walked the yard to see if we had any damage.  Thank God everything was still intact.

We did find shinglesin our yard, and roof felt, sheet rock, insulation, wood pieces, and paper, Fortunately, no houses in the neighborhood had been damaged – as far as we could tell.  Come to find out, a tornado touched had down about 4 1/2 miles from our house.  It was at that point that we realized how serious this was.  We proceeded back inside and ate quickly.  From my sister-in-law’s iPhone, which was all we had for radar with the power still out, we learned that another super cell was heading straight for us. We finished eating and went back to our designated spots.

The baby, my sister and sister-in-law hunkered down in one closet; Anna and Abby were in another.  I was in a winged back chair in the frame of another closet. My mom took shelter in the closet on the inside wall of the garage.  We tried to stay as close to the stairs as possible since we were told that stairs are usually the only thing left if a tornado hits.

The next wave struck with a vengeance.  It is really scary when you have no power and live in a city with no tornado sirens and all you have is a very small cell phone screen to see what is heading your way.  The trees started cracking and popping and losing limbs.  Nickel size hail pinged all around us and the house moaned under pressure of the wind.  I don’t know what’s scarier; sitting in a closet where you can see what’s going on through the window, or sitting in a closet and not knowing what’s going on at all.

After that wave came another and then two more. The first wave had been fun and games compared to these, and time the fifth one arrived, we were terrified and crying. It was well after 10 p.m when winds settled and the storms passed.  We had been dodging tornadoes for seven hours and were so emotionally and physically exhausted we went to bed.

I, however, could not. It had been a few hours since I had heard from my husband. He had been at work the whole time , stuck in the basement with no cell phone service.  After each wave I texted him to let him know I was okay and he did the same.  All day I stayed strong so my girls wouldn’t be scared. When my husband walked in the door around 12:20 a.m, I grabbed him and sobbed, so glad to be in his arms. I finally felt safe.

Morning broke on the sight of downed limbs in our yard, nothing more.  Across town, morning broke on complete devastation:  Six tornadoes had ripped through the south part of town, all ranging from EF1’s to EF4’s.  I knew that since I deliver pizzas I would inevitably see the destruction.  My job is stressful, but after a tornado, the stress level rises.  Over 3,000 people were without electricity and no way to cook. Some had no house to cook in.  This made pizza delivery the easiest way to get food.

I work for Dominos and we were proud to accommodate hungry survivors.  We donated pizzas more than once and also participated in fund raisers for the tornado victims; not for recognition but out of humanity.  We also fed the volunteers who helped in the relief.  Tennessee is definitely the volunteer state and I am proud to be a part of it!

I personally delivered pizzas in several hard-hit areas. It’s one thing to see it in pictures or on T.V., but to be able to walk up and touch it is so much more heart- wrenching.  At one place only a mailbox and a driveway remained and people  gathered what was left of their stuff. The house was a pile of rubble with a roof on top, the only thing intact.

The house across the street was fine in the front but the back was gone.  I cried all the way back to the store.  At that moment I realized how lucky we were.  After work that day I vacuumed, mopped and scrubbed the toilets. I washed dishes and swept the floor and it was the first time I have ever been grateful to clean my house. Not only was I grateful because our house had been left untouched, but because I was alive to clean it.  The storms claimed nine lives that day, including that of a three-month-old baby boy.

I know you have heard it before, but life is so short.  Appreciate what you have and don’t take anything for granted. None of us is guaranteed a tomorrow. FFG

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