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The Road to World Conquest: Stormbringer, Part I

April 27, 2011

I woke up before dawn on my day off so that I could walk Huck before my 7 a.m. appointment at Firestone. The Juicebox needed new brakes, especially since I was planning to carry Catherine and the dog in it on our drive to Florida so that she could meet my folks.

The news on TV chattered about storms rumbling toward the Deep South from Arkansas. They talked about tornado concerns. I’d been living in Huntsville for more than four months. The words “tornado watch” and “tornado warning” came up with numbing regularity. Longtime residents talked about the freak tornado of 1989 that wiped out Airport Road with a sort of reverence that suggested it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing that would never happen again.

I didn’t take the early warnings seriously on Wednesday. All I cared about was making sure I got those brakes fixed before lunch, so that I could be home during the thunderstorms to help keep Huck calm.

While the mechanic worked on the Scion, I started reading Blackout by Connie Willis, a novel about time-traveling historians sent back to key moments to witness major events, from the Black Death to Dunkirk to the second World Trade Center attack. On the TV, forecasters warned again that we would face some nasty weather in Huntsville. Rain fell for a while. I noticed a drip-drip-drip from the ceiling onto the carpet beside a table loaded with magazines. The manager told me the roof had a leak. They’d been planning to fix the roof, but hadn’t gotten to it yet. He fetched a bucket to catch the drops.

Within a half hour or so, the rain relented. The skies were blue scudded with white. Not so bad, I thought. The Juicebox would take a few more hours to fix. I decided to take a walk, strolling along the sidewalk that parallels Airport Road. I passed Cafe Berlin, Starbucks, and Panera Bread. Eventually, I reached the McDonald’s on Whitesburg, near the Airport intersection. I figured that I’d have time to eat breakfast, read, maybe watch the news, yammer on Twitter, and then head back to Firestone before the next storm wave struck.

I bought a Big Breakfast – the pancakes, eggs, sausage, and hash browns, with orange juice. I sat at one of the elevated tables near the window. An employee worked behind me, conducting some sort of maintenance on the swiveling chair attached to the other table. Two old men sat below the TV that broadcast FOX News, reading their copies of the Huntsville Times. It occurred to me that they probably sat in this McDonald’s just about every day, a routine that let them get up and running without just leaping out of bed and scurrying madly toward the day. I wondered what that would be like. I thought it might be nice. Maybe I should start getting up earlier, find a nice place to begin the day, and ease myself into the daily grind. Something to think about. I had just started munching on the hash browns when FOX announced that President Barack Obama would finally release the “long-form” birth certificate from Hawaii.

THIS was the big news? I had some fun with this turn of events on Twitter. Soon enough, though, I got bored. Finished my breakfast, dumped the trash, grabbed my book, and then started walking back to Firestone.

When I returned to my seat in the waiting room, the TV was on WHNT, and the forecaster once again expressed concern about the line of storms closing on northern Alabama. It would start rolling through our area sometime after lunch. Another customer in the waiting room grumbled about that. He had a doctor’s appointment. He didn’t want to be late. About this time, a woman with dark pigtails and a blue sun dress walked into the lobby with a chihuahua cradled in her arms. I half expected to see her wearing ruby slippers.

Around 11:30 a.m., the Juicebox was finished. I paid the bill – about $500 – and reclaimed my key. As I cranked the engine, I noticed that the fuel was down to just above a quarter of a tank. Right then and there, I should’ve driven two blocks to the Chevron to fill the tank. It would’ve taken all of five minutes. But, remember, I didn’t really think anything of these tornado warnings. I’d heard them before. Foolishly, I believed nothing would come of them.

So, instead of gassing up the Juicebox, I swung through the Taco Bell drive-through to pick up a quick lunch before driving home.

I’m not sure why I chose to live in denial that day. Back in 2004, I lived in Florida and survived the criss-crossing sweeps of four hurricanes in just a couple of months. In 1993, working as a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, I covered the terrible “storm of the century” that swept in from the Gulf of Mexico and decimated the Hernando County coast. I had no excuse. I’d seen what happened. I knew what was coming: Power outages. Food shortages. Destruction. Death.

But, I reasoned, it wasn’t going to happen to me. And it wouldn’t matter, anyway. Catherine would be flying into Huntsville that night. Bright and early the next morning, we’d be on the road to Florida. I had laid down the law. She’s not great about getting up early, but I insisted that we try to be on the highway by 8 a.m. to make the most of our day’s travel to Deltona. She could always sleep while I drive, I told her.

I didn’t take the situation seriously until I switched on the news and they talked about 96 mph winds in a storm cell that was closing in from the west. The town’s tornado siren wailed. It had done that a few times since I arrived in Huntsville in January, but I’d never seen an actual tornado. Now, though, I was a little worried.

I took Huck out for a quick walk. The storm wasn’t over my apartment yet, but the clouds were…odd. Some blew one direction, while others moved opposite. Almost like they were dancing in a slow circle, as if they might want to form a funnel. That freaked me out, I confess. Then I got a text from my mom, who was listening to WAFF on the Internet: “Get inside now.”

We went back inside. I talked on the phone with Catherine about her flight, which still seemed to be on schedule. I told her that it might be best if she waited until Thursday to fly in. Or, better yet, maybe she should fly directly to Orlando so my folks could pick her up. I would drive down with Huck. But Catherine wanted to stick with the plan for now.

I heard the forecaster on WAFF talk about a bad cell coming across the Redstone Arsenal toward Memorial Parkway. My apartment is about 1 mile from the Arsenal’s Gate 1. Mom heard the same report. I watched through the upstairs window as dark clouds roiled overhead. Above the hills to the east, I saw small funnel clouds trying to f0rm. I took Huck down into the stairwell, the lowest and most sheltered spot in the apartment, and waited for a while. That got boring, though, so we headed back upstairs. I tweeted and gabbed on Facebook while the news reports continued: Hail the size of baseballs; tornadoes half a mile wide, negative tilt troughs. The tornado alert horn wailed through the gusting wind. The forecaster said we could expect to be raked by these storm cells for the next four or five hours.

Late that afternoon, Catherine’s flight was cancelled. She couldn’t get a direct flight to Orlando, but they would put her on the plane to Huntsville on Thursday morning. I told her that I’d be there to pick her up.

Then TVA’s transmission lines got hammered by the tornadoes. Much of northern Alabama, including my apartment, lost power. I unplugged all the electronics in the living room and turned off the light switches, to reduce the chances of a circuit overload when power returned.

“It’s okay,” I told Catherine on the phone. “I should be able to stay in contact. Even though the power is out, I can charge the phone in the Juicebox.”

I tried, too. That evening, I sat in the car with the engine idling and the phone charging. Huck sat in the back seat. We were in the car for about five minutes before I saw fingers of  lightning crackling through the gray clouds overhead like sparkly spider webs.

“Yeah,” I muttered. “Not doing this.” I took the dog back inside.

The phone’s charge wouldn’t last much longer. So, I switched it off. I opened the window so that we could get some fresh air. I lit the black candle that Catherine had picked up for me when she helped me move to Huntsville. I read for a while. I was fairly certain that the power outage wouldn’t be more than a couple of hours. It didn’t occur to me that TVA’s infrastructure could’ve been obliterated by this storm.

After dark, I could see nothing from my apartment but the occasional lightning flash and the headlights of cars driven by fools who must not have known any better.

The power, I then realized, wouldn’t be coming back that night. It probably wouldn’t be back for days. I decided to get some rest. So I blew out the candle, set the book aside, and slept on the couch. Huck lay on the floor beside me. Sienna, the cat, curled on the back of the couch. A few times during the night, I woke up, glancing hopefully toward the kitchen, hoping to see a flashing clock on the microwave. Nothing.

April 28, 2011

I was up around 7 to walk the dog. The storms had passed. We’d made it through alive. After Huck did his morning business, I loaded him in the car. We needed gas, at least enough to get out of town. I switched on the radio, listening to news reports about the aftermath of these killer tornadoes. The town of Phil Campbell “looked like it was bombed,” they said. Tuscaloosa took a serious hit. Some college students had died. Power might be out for a week.

I drove south on Memorial Parkway. None of the traffic signals worked. Motorists treated them as four-way stops. At this point, everyone seemed rather calm and conciliatory, making way for their neighbors. Some convenience stores with gas stations were open, but none of their pumps functioned. I drove all the way to Morgan County, crossing the bridge over the Tennessee River, before I finally reached the conclusion that things just got worse as I went south. I didn’t have much gas to waste, and Catherine would be arriving on a flight that morning at 9:30.

They talked on the radio about places with power that could supply gasoline. One town name kept coming up: Athens, west of Huntsville. If I could make it to Athens, I could fill the tank. The catch, they said on the radio, was that everyone and their mother was trying to reach places like Athens. It would take me at least two hours to reach a place that, on a good day, was just fifteen minutes away. But this wasn’t a good day.

I drove up Memorial Parkway to University Drive, which I then took west toward Athens. As I passed the Sam’s Club, I saw clusters of cars parked around their gas pumps. I thought maybe I could bypass the crazy two-hour drive and put my Sam’s Club membership to use. I pulled in, but got waved off by an old man in a Cadillac. “No gas,” he said. The other motorists were just sitting there, waiting for the electricity fairy to come turn on the pumps so that they could start drawing that magical elixir from the tanks.

Back on the road. I drove west, through areas that looked like they’d been smashed by a really cranky giant. Thump-thump – thick electricity transmission cables, now inert, had fallen across the road. As promised, it took about two hours to reach Athens. I pulled into the first station I saw, on the right, which was crowded with cars. However, the station didn’t have power. Apparently, not all of Athens was electrified that morning. “No power, no pumps,” a woman lamented.

My tank was hovering just above E, but the yellow hazard light hadn’t come on yet. I drove further west and saw a station on the left side of the road with a half-mile long line of cars waiting to get in. The signs showing the gas prices were glowing. People seemed to be pumping gas just fine. I made a U-turn into the line, thanks to the generosity and patience of an older couple in a Toyota who let me in. Catherine’s plane had already landed, but I couldn’t seem to get text messages out to anyone. I could post on Twitter and Facebook for some reason, though, so she eventually saw that I was still alive and well and waiting for gasoline.

As we slowly eased past the Shoney’s restaurant, an impatient woman in a silver Ford tried forcing her way between me and the Toyota. The older couple honked at her in frustration. She just shrugged and assumed her place in line behind me. It’s about this time that I noticed two cars parked at the pumps that would ultimately be my destination. No one was pumping gas into them. This happened a few times. I thought maybe they had gone to the bathroom or stepped inside the convenience store to buy some snacks and provisions.

When I was about four cars back, a man knocked on my window. I rolled it down. He asked if I could keep my car where it was, then pointed to his gasoline tanker truck, which he said he needed to get through the maze of cars to the tanks so that he could refill them.

“Not much point in parking at empty pumps,” I agreed.

He had to wait for other cars to get out of the way. He pulled the tanker truck parallel to my Scion. The yellow “low gas” warning light came on. I switched off my engine to conserve fuel. Meanwhile, the interloper behind me grew even more impatient. This time, she honked. I ignored her. After a few minutes, she got out and waddled toward my car.

“Excuse me,” she said, “but could you move your car up there?” She pointed to an empty paved area to the right of the pumps. “We’re running out of gas down here. We don’t want to get stuck out there.”

“Look at the big picture,” I replied.

“What?” she asked.

I gestured to the large gasoline tanker trunk rumbling behind her. “It’s not much use to shove our cars way up there when he needs to fill the pumps.” I pointed to the tiny metal circles embedded in the asphalt in that section where she wanted to park. “That’s where the hoses go. So, I recommend that you just be patient. We all need gas. Everyone’s on edge. But it’s not doing anyone any good to try to rush right now. I suggest turning off your engine, though, just until the truck gets through and we can move up wherever we want.”

She didn’t like it, but she agreed.

A few minutes later, the tanker truck was through the mess and safely pumping more gasoline into the tanks for our consumption. Finally, I pulled my car next to Pump No. 4. I intended to be a model of efficiency, one of the motorists doing it right, and slid out of the Juicebox with my credit card. I ran it through the slot and received a message: “SLIDE YOUR CARD AGAIN.” I obeyed. “SLIDE YOUR CARD AGAIN.” All right, sure. “SLIDE YOUR CARD AGAIN.” What the hell? “SLIDE YOUR CARD AGAIN.”

I went inside to find a crowd of people waiting to talk to the two clerks behind the counter. So, this, I realized, is where the owners of those empty cars kept coming. Some cards just weren’t working properly in the pump readers. They worked fine inside, though. I paid for $25 in gas. Not enough for a full tank, but enough to drive to the airport, pick up Catherine, grab my luggage from the apartment, and then get us on the interstate south toward Birmingham. All news reports on the radio made it sound like going southeast toward Georgia through places like Arab, Guntersville, and Gadsden wouldn’t be a good idea.

Within a few minutes, I was on Interstate 65, bound for the airport.

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