The Finger of God

Where was I when this occurred? I was standing at the top of the stairs to the basement in the kitchen with legs so weak that I knew if I tried to go downstairs, I would have fallen and broken my neck. So I stood there, not two feet from our large kitchen window, too terrified to move to safety, mesmerized by the scene outside that was now being lit up constantly by lightning. The trees were bending to near 45 degree angles. The small twigs and branches that were banging into the window were competing with the constant, driving, sideways rain that was almost as loud as the wind.

Most people who die in tornadoes are hit by debris from their own house. It was monumentally stupid to stand next to a window with the wind blowing near 100 miles per hour, but clear thinking is not possible when witnessing nature unbound. In retrospect, it has made me appreciate the ancients a little more who worshiped the power of the natural world, named weather events for gods, and though superstitious to a fault, had a healthier respect for what nature could do than I (and probably many people living today).

It was over in less than three minutes, the weather service said. Would that the perception of time contained in those three minutes could be transferred to everyday life. If so, it would seem that I was practically immortal. Hours would seem like weeks, weeks like years, and years as if they were centuries. Life never seems so precious and so desperately desired as when the distinct possibility you are going to lose it stares you right in the eye.

Cliches, all. But I would give almost anything not to have lived those three minutes. And I'm sure many of my neighbors would agree.

Touring the damaged areas on Monday, the reality of my close call was even more pronounced. One block from my home, dozens of trees were snapped off whole 20 feet above ground. These neighbors probably consider themselves lucky as well, because one block further east extensive roof damage could be seen in many houses with some homes just a mass of lumber, drywall, brick, and personal items piled high in what used to be someone's front yard.

Another block over and even more extensive home damage. Here, the storm created havoc for one family, while sparing their next-door neighbor. Fate can truly be a cruel mistress for some, a benign force for others. The singular effect of the entire panorama where the worst of the damage could be seen was that of a war zone. The question that kept crossing my mind was: how did anyone survive this hell?

The cleanup is already well underway. The mass of insurance agents, bureaucrats, and service companies (tree removal services are doing land office business) who attend these disasters are already at work, translating all that people have lost into nice, neat forms with dollars and cents totals. No doubt those with insurance, or those eligible for government grants, will be grateful for the opportunity to rebuild their lives. But it will be many months before those lives will return to normal.

And it's a good bet that none of us who experienced the Streator tornado of 2010 will ever be quite the same again.