“A Twist(er) of Fate”
Contributor
Written by
Kathryne Arnold
September 2012
Contributor
Written by
Kathryne Arnold
September 2012

The recent damage to some regions of the Gulf Coast, brought on by Hurricane Isaac, has spurred memories of a day long ago full of great fury and fear. As I watched the sky and ocean in earnest last week for the predicted torrential wind, storm surge, tornados and floods, a great feeling of relief washed over me as Isaac turned and headed northwest in the gulf. Of course I felt a pang of guilt, knowing that if I escaped the direct onslaught, surely another region of Florida or other coastal states would be slammed by Mother Nature’s wrath, which is exactly what happened.

 

My trepidation was in part due to all the newscasts detailing the dreadful and heartbreaking stories, played out in the media during and after any natural disaster. But living in Florida, especially on the west coast only fifty feet from the wide-open bay, adds much fuel to my already overactive imagination. But my bouts of realistic anxiety comes from being a survivor of a string of unanticipated tornados that touched down one day in Pinellas County about twenty years ago. This memory is now mostly dormant, tucked away like a puppet stashed inside a Jack-in-the-Box, forgotten and idle, until an unwitting touch of the lid brings Jack springing up at you, your heart in your throat. Jack to me has become any large storm hurdling toward Tampa Bay.

 

I recall the day that taught me in an instant the true meaning of terror, randomness and vulnerability. Talk about having no sense of self-control, predictability or understanding. I was excited earlier in the day as I was moving everything I owned into a huge storage facility for a few weeks as I settled into my boyfriend’s house, as we made room for my belongings. I was sitting in the warehouse manager’s office, deciding whether I should get insurance to cover my possessions for the short stay. I remember remarking, as though it were yesterday, “it’s only for three weeks, what could possibly happen?” 

 

Well, any sense of invincibility I might have possessed against this sometimes big, bad world was forever dashed a moment later. I recall turning my head slowly to the left, looking out his picture window, and seeing debris unexpectedly blowing about in the wind. The sky turned a very strange color, a weird purplish-gray, which in turn, became a blackness as dark as midnight. It was then that the frightened drivers of my moving van ran in and yelled for me to get in the van for protection, that they spied a funnel coming toward us at a frightening speed. In a split-second, I decided to opt out and remain in the facility, the ceiling thirty feet high, furniture piled almost to the top. I felt it would be safer there than to risk the possibility of being sucked up by the great winds of a tornado and tossed about in a vehicle like Dorothy in her small Kansas home. I had been in Florida not so very long, personally naive as to the havoc a twister could wreak in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, I would soon be finding out.

 

I recall running down the center corridor of the warehouse, looking for a safe haven, which was not to be forthcoming. A slow moving, elderly couple, unaware of the funnel racing toward us, caught my attention. Due to some primal instinct to protect, I literally grabbed them and accompanied them onto the cement floor, covering both with my body. Seconds later, the tornado slammed into the large building and reduced it to rubble. I recall looking up toward the roof, watching as it was being peeled backward, like I was peering upward from within a gigantic sardine can. For a moment time stood still, trapped as an unwitting player in some sort of horror show, an overpowering dread having taken up residence in my psyche.

 

Furniture and debris were crashing down around me, my back and head exposed. Beside me, an iron I-beam that reached far upward now literally twisted into a helix. A roar descended upon us and enveloped my whole being. I could do nothing but pray for my life and those around me, mumbling the same words repeatedly, paralyzed with fear. Others say experiencing the sound of a tornado is like hearing an extremely loud train. To me, not when you’re living it from the inside out. I was smack dab in the middle of the thing, buried alive, as though I had fallen into the tracks of a subway station and the train was barreling right over me. I ceased to breathe, almost to be. I thought it was the end of my life.

 

Thirty seconds later it was gone. That’s all it took, had hightailed it right out of there, on to its next victims. Miraculously, I was the only one injured inside the storage facility that day, nothing I couldn’t recover from in short order. Glass was sticking out of my skin in chunks. I remember like it was yesterday, the navy blue-and-white striped shirt and white shorts I wore. The red streaking down my legs, running perpendicular to the stripes, not a dot had touched my white shorts. I recollect actually observing that. I could feel myself going into shock, a sort of stupor. I crawled out of the rubble through a hole in the wall, and squinted into the sun. The stillness of the now blue sky belying the hellish aftermath of a devastating storm, like nothing had ever happened

 

As I looked around, it appeared as though a huge bomb had gone off, like we were in the middle of a war zone, as far as the eye could see. I walked in a daze about the general area, what was once the warehouse and parking lot. Electrical cables danced off the street, spitting deadly sparks every which way, farther away people were crawling out of crevices that were once structures. The cries of the injured living and working nearby could be heard all around me, moans coming from behind wreckage, indistinct and muted. It echoed like an amphitheatre. Every car was overturned, except for my boyfriend’s that I had borrowed for the day. It was sitting upright, but every window was blown out. My 19” television, however, was sitting in the back of the car, untouched.

 

All those who were affected by this twister were suddenly appearing from God-knows-where, assessing the situation, assisting the injured, focused and strong. I have patchy memories of what happened next. Standing in line to use the one car phone (no cell phones back then) that had been left intact, sirens descending upon us suddenly in great droves from every direction, a swooping in of sorts. I was gathered into an ambulance, but so great was the need that the one ambulance attendant asked me to help with a more critically injured survivor. I climbed into the vehicle and tried to assist, my blood still flowing, trying to restrain the young mans legs as ordered, which was pretty useless as he seemed out of his mind, kicking every which way with his steel-tipped cowboy boots, striking me repeatedly in the head. The nearest hospital was flooded with patients, and had lost all power, now running on their generators. Every room was filled to capacity; an intern stitched me up as I lie on a cot in the lobby while someone held a flashlight over my legs.

 

Many other details come to mind, too many to recount in this blog. I guess the crux of the whole story is what I took away from this horrifying event – looking for the good parts, the positives in any way possible. What I witnessed from strangers was not easily forgotten, the kindness in their hearts, the true concern for those around them, who had for whatever reason, been thrown into the same natural disaster. While it was a running away from the fear and destruction and terror, it was also a running toward each other. A gathering of human strength, an abiding and fundamental cord that binds us all together, something intangible but real all the same, that shows itself in the most unforeseen ways.

 

But what is of most significance is that even though we were caught up in a hell storm, we were ready to help our neighbors, especially those we saw as most vulnerable. I’m pleased to include myself among those numbers; an immense strength that wells up inside you, a force you never knew existed. A calmness descends, a rationality that drives us takes over, a belief that we will endure, that we will transcend any horror which is thrust upon us. The love and empathy and giving is what I remember most, from everyone around me, unfamiliar persons caring for each other, a reaching beyond ourselves, connecting in the most elemental of ways. I know when the next crisis occurs, wherever and whenever, we as people will be there for each other, for I have lived it. It is the makeup of being human. And that is what I go with, that is what makes this life worth living. 

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