The Wizard of Oz, born in the mind of Frank L. Baum and rendered in film in 1939, is not a film about a storm. Here are some: Twister (1996), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Sharknado (2013). But in The Wizard of Oz, the tornado that carries Dorothy from her farm in Kansas over the rainbow to Oz is a plot device, a movement, an instrument. It takes her inside her own house, leaving her family behind, and we are reminded, when she says “There’s no place like home,” that “home” is not a structure, but perhaps the people we love and the places we know.
I didn’t understand this when I was eight years old and my mother showed me The Wizard of Oz for the first time. I owned countless pairs of ruby slippers, and I would stomp around our brick house in Alabama singing, “There’s no place like home,” and my parents would laugh. I am not sure I registered the storm at all.
From the age of eight to about 12 or 13, The Wizard of Oz was my favorite film. I can’t watch it anymore. I’ve always been a person who looked for versions of her self on screens and on pages. And I think most girls probably saw themselves in Dorothy — the kind, naïve girl from a small town. But the thing that really connected me with Dorothy Gale won’t let me go: tornadoes carried both of us away from our homes
I just haven’t gone back. I left my hometown when I was 18; then I left the state when I was 22. “There’s no place like home,” but “home” is a house filled, now, by strangers, two miles from a decimated school building and a marble memorial of children I once knew.
Alabama, on the outskirts of tornado alley, is no stranger to tornadoes. Growing up, the tornado siren was often a background noise. We did drills in school; we covered our heads. There was never any point when I thought the drill might be real. Kansas is, of course, in tornado alley proper, which is why Dorothy’s family had a storm cellar and seemed only inconvenienced. In Alabama, we did not have a storm cellar.
When I was sixteen and about halfway through my first year of high school, a record-breaking EF4 tornado carried itself through my town, destroying my high school and killing eight of my classmates. There really isn’t any easy way to bring that up in casual conversation.
I’m going to describe the school building. If for nothing else, it delays the inevitable. Our high school was shaped like an “E,” with each of the three legs of the “E” forming a different hall. They were referred to as, logically, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Hall. 3rd Hall, the northern-most leg of the “E,” was hit directly. Most of the damage was done here. There was a 4th Hall as well, and while writing this, it dawns on me that I don’t know how 4th Hall connected to the “E.” Nevertheless, there was a 4th Hall, and I was in it, hunched up against the wall between one of my best friends and my then-boyfriend, when the tornado hit us.
There are things that happened, after the tornado hit, that I don’t remember. Then there are things that happened before and during the moment it struck that I don’t think I will ever forget. Do you remember tornado drills in school? We all do, I think. I remember thinking how silly they were, partly because it was laughable that putting your hands over your head would save you from a tornado. But mostly because I didn’t think it would ever happen. Tornadoes don’t just happen, unless you’re in The Wizard of Oz. Or Sharknado.
When the tornado hit, we had been sitting in the hall for hours. I don’t remember the exact timeframe, but Wikipedia tells me this: “Early on the afternoon of Thursday, March 1, at 1:08 pm CST, a destructive tornado first developed near the Enterprise Municipal Airport. The tornado lifted off the ground briefly before returning to the ground as an even stronger storm. It quickly slammed into Enterprise, Alabama, at 1:12 pm.” It took four minutes to reach us. When it did, I was sitting on the cold floor — we had all given up sitting in the requisite head-covering pose — sharing a box of cookies with the boys across the hall from us. These were boys I had known since I was in kindergarten. We were laughing, tired of sitting, and stupid - the way all of us are at sixteen. Somewhere, I heard kids trying to get up, to convince the teachers to let them drive home. We’d been sitting for hours.
I remember the lights going out, I remember how silent it was. Everything was so terribly quiet. I remember that, at the end of the hall, there were two, heavy metal doors that let outside to the courtyard, and I remember that they were sturdy and hard to open. I remember that at what was apparently 1:12 pm (according to Wikipedia), those doors flew open and off like they were made of tin foil. My boyfriend grabbed me, put his hands over my head and shoulder and yelled over what had now become extremely loud wind, “Don’t listen, ignore everything!”
And then it was over. That’s the other thing about tornadoes — they are incredibly swift and incredibly merciless.
I remember immediately after the tornado was gone, I looked across the hall and saw those boys, the ones I had shared my cookies with, trapped under a fallen light fixture, unmoving. I remember standing up on shaky legs and feeling like I had a pound of dust in my lungs. There was blood on my hand. We walked down Main Hall — that’s the base of the E — and I remember peering down into 3rd Hall and just seeing people: people struggling to stand, people crying, people trapped under rows and rows of fallen lockers. Every day, even now, I try not to think about that image, because I can’t think about it without fatality headlines flashing in my head. Most of the people who died were down that hallway.
We were out. It was daylight outside, and the day looked bright and clear. The building in front of us was a wrecked, open wound, and we were in shock. Teachers milled around us, looking just as lost and trying half-heartedly to regain some semblance of control. In Enterprise, Alabama, we like to think of ourselves as a “community”. I suppose that’s true, though I never particular felt that I was part of it. “Community” certainly becomes a lot less abstract after you all huddle together in the dark, waiting to live or die — to quite literally just escape high school. Those moments after, when we all filed out of what was left of our school, were moments during which I think we all really felt like something resembling a community. We were standing on the sidewalk and staring in shock at the damage, calling our friends and praying that the silence on the other end was due to telephone wires being down rather than the worst possible news. Both cases were often true.
I remember driving home with my friend and her dad, who must have heard the news and came to pick us up. The phones were down all day. I remember coming home and telling my mom and how she didn’t know what to do other than to insist I was making it up, and that it wasn’t a funny joke at all. No, Mom, I said, I’m not joking. No, I said, a tornado hit our school. I said, the school is gone.
And then, because it seems important, here’s what I don’t remember at all. I went into my room and I packed things I felt were important, that I couldn’t live without: books, cds, makeup, a stuffed animal or two. I packed them all in a bag and I took it into the shower with me and I sat in there for a very long time. I think I blacked out because I don’t remember this, but I’ve been told it happened. I was so very desperate for anything that would make me feel safe.
There was an article in The New York Times: “After Tornado, An Alabama High School Tallies The Grief.” There was a nationally aired 60-minute special. Some faces I knew cried on television; some other faces I knew did nothing at all on television, because they were just photographs, because they were dead.
The president came, and then the president left. Mandy Moore played at prom, Rachael Ray cooked the food. I went to school for three years in FEMA trailers. These are hard things to explain to people, hard things to reconcile with the images of the ‘All-American High School Experience’ we’re sold in movies and on TV. On TV, high schools are big brick monstrosities with multiple floors; there are football players and cheerleaders and the kids who hate them. We had football players and cheerleaders of course. Some of them died. Some of them didn’t. The high school in my hometown is a big brick monstrosity with multiple floors, but I never stepped foot in it because it was built after I left, an $86 million dollar replacement for what we lost.
I had a friend who died in that school, Peter Dunn. We called him Petey in the 8th grade. We grew apart in our first year of high school, but I think about him from time to time and I miss him. I remember sitting across from him in the cafeteria, watching him laugh (he was always laughing) about how he swore he could swallow a chicken wing whole. He was sixteen; we were all sixteen.
In the weeks after the tornado hit, we would walk around the school — what was left of it. We took pictures. We rummaged through wood and brick. It didn’t feel real. There were reporters. There were wildly inaccurate death tolls (22, then five, then nine). There were helicopters.
I felt disoriented, confused, afraid, and angry. I didn’t understand how everything could change so quickly, and I don’t think I came close to understanding how much things would change even more. I was a 16-year-old, wannabe-punk kid who hated my school and hated the president. Then my school was gone. The president was here.
The tornado is hard for me to talk about, hard for me to write about. How do you write about something so big, so shapeless? Sometimes I laugh to myself when I think about tornadoes, and what they are. “It’s just wind; that’s all it is, just wind.” The thing about tornadoes is that they come and go very quickly, and we all have to deal with what is left behind.
What was left behind was a 16-year-old girl that was suddenly very different from the 16-year-old girl sitting in the hall of her school one March afternoon.
I was diagnosed with PTSD by a family doctor when I was seventeen and then again by a therapist as an adult. That day in my house after the tornado struck was not the last time I would black out, although it was certainly the most severe. I regularly lose stretches of time; I have panic attacks fairly frequently, and when those happen, my brain tends to try to go some place else. My hands shake — sometimes because something had triggered a response, but often for no reason at all. For years after, whenever a tornado siren would sound, even a drill (something that happens often in Alabama), I would become hysterical. I would scream myself hoarse at my parents, begging them to get into my bathroom or the linen closet — any room with the fewest number of exterior walls and windows — screaming at them that we were all going to die.
It’s not just that I’m now deathly afraid of bad weather, even though that is true. In the “After,” I’ve become afraid of so many things. I’ve become very aware of my body and how easy it is to break. I have what therapists call “intrusive thoughts,” and they happen all the time. I’ll chop onions and, for a brief, horrible second, I’ll imagine slicing through my fingers, cutting them off. While crossing the street, I’ll look at the car still two blocks away and imagine it much, much closer — hitting my body, running me over, breaking my bones. I’ll be petting my cat, rubbing and scratching at her soft ears but suddenly in my mind she has started hissing, scratching at my eyes.
I think the thing about trauma is that people feel very alone within it. It’s very personal, that thing that happened to you. But what happened to me happened to hundreds of other people at the exact same time. We were all there in that school. After the tornado, we huddled together in churches and community buildings and tried to talk about this thing that had happened to us. Adults tried to explain to us what had happened, what was going to happen. The school year resumed, this time on a local community college campus and in trailers. We graduated, got jobs or started college. I went to college three hours away, in a small town outside of Birmingham with my best friend. Between March 1 and the day I left for college, I spent a lot of time walking around town, screaming in my head because I just didn’t understand why no one else seemed to be as affected by this as I was. I know, of course, this isn’t true — people had lost family members and best friends, and while I knew every person who died, none of them were extremely close to me. Everyone seemed sad, but I was angry and afraid and my hands shook for no reason at all.
We do, we feel very alone in trauma, caught inside it and circling ourselves. Like the around, around, around of a funnel cloud. It’s been ten years. A decade later, and I sometimes feel like maybe this is the time to write about it. I am afraid of so many things. I’m afraid that people who were there will read this and that the way I’ve chosen to talk about it is all wrong. I’m afraid that people who didn’t already know these things about me will treat me differently. I’m afraid of this being the only thing I can ever write, that I’ll be telling the same story over and over again. It took four minutes for that tornado to do what it did and when I think about that, it’s wild. Four minutes. Maybe the people I grew up with, maybe they think about those four minutes too. Maybe they feel caught in this thing forever, like I do. Maybe they don’t.
I think I’m just still trying to understand, even now. With the distance of time and nearly a dozen states, I try to think about what happened in a way that makes it make sense. I think about watching a movie like The Wizard of Oz as a kid and how utterly, utterly ignorant I was to how very real storms can be. In November last year, in the days after the election, there were memes circulating online that showed a map of the United States, with the tornado alley states highlighted in red with some stupid joke about how God should just take those states out. As if the election was our fault, as if tornadoes can be used as acts of revenge. I try to understand all of these images, of “home”, and of houses and structures and schools and children, but I can’t get myself out of those four minutes. I’m starting to feel like I never will.