Apr 29, 2013

Flashback: Hunkering Down in the Studio During a Tornado

There are many things that happen in the studio that can catch you off guard.  Usually they have to do with some moody piece of expensive electronic equipment throwing a temper tantrum and deciding that though it may be of perfect use for whatever vision the band has at that specific moment, it would rather not cooperate with the producer, opting instead to mock everyone in the room.  The poor producer/wizard may try any number of incantations to unlock the magic inside said device, but the more the band wants it to work, the less likely it shall.  I am very fortunate that there are no wires or manic depressive circuit boards whose fragile egos require the correct combination of compliments for me to be able to play music. I have a hard enough time figuring out which direction I have to flip a wall switch for the lights to come on.  Having to work around electronics with a mind of their own would be the end of my musical journey.  Me hit things with stick.  Me make sound that way.  Me happy.

On April 16th, 2011 Tannon and I were in the studio with our own producer/wizard, Greg Elkins, when we got a call alerting us to a different kind of wrinkle headed our way.  There was a tornado that was coming right towards our section of town!  We were getting updates from Monica and from Greg's soon-to-be wife, Heather.  Both of them were gathering pets and finding the lowest points in their respective homes as the twister bore down on us all.  At the studio things did get pretty hairy for a bit, but I had no idea what a close call we had until I went home later that afternoon.

My first glimpse of the severity of the storm came as I was on the Beltline, just a mile and a half or so from home.  That was where I noticed a large tree that was lying on the shoulder of the highway.  Not one that had fallen over onto the shoulder, but one that had been plucked from the earth, roots and all, and just happened to fall right there.  It was very abstract, like whenever you see a car that has rolled over on the road and it takes you a second to realize that you are looking at the bottom of a vehicle.  A loose tree on the side of the road?  With its root system intact?  That just couldn't be!  As I was trying to absorb what I was driving past I saw one of those enormous signs that are normally suspended over highways swinging freely, barely hanging on by one corner.  What in the world was going on?  I was pretty nervous about what I might find as I got closer to the house even though Monica had called to say that things were fine.

I got to the house and everything was indeed, fine.  Our neighbors were all outside talking to one another and asking if we were okay.  I still hadn't figured out how close we came to disaster.  My parents came over later that night to take us out to dinner.  On our way downtown we saw lots of people walking about, many more than usual, and we had to take several detours because trees were laying on the roads everywhere we went.  People were already out with chainsaws to try and uncover their cars and homes, and there was a overall sense of aimless confusion.  We did make it to dinner after a strange ride through parts of town we never see, and the power came back on at the house not too long after we got back.  We didn't really get a good idea of how lucky we were until we went driving around the next day.

The tornado first hit Raleigh where Loincloth and Confessor used to practice, south of town, and then cut through at an angle heading north east, almost directly for our neighborhood.  It came within about a mile and a half from our house, probably less as the crow flies.  We drove around to see what there was to see the next day on our way to El Rodeo for our traditional Sunday lunch.  We looked for trees and traffic, the two obvious signs of things being out of place.  Within a couple of miles of our house we found an industrial area that had been hit pretty hard.  This was where I passed  the uprooted tree on my way home from the studio the day before.  After driving around in a bit of a daze we decided to go behind one of the buildings that had been damaged and that's where I first felt how powerful the storm really was.  There was a van and a tractor trailer that were both laying on their sides.  From that moment on everything felt far more serious.  Later that day we learned that people had died in the tornado.  Between our house and that very same uprooted tree was a trailer park. Four children were lost there that day, though they did everything you are supposed to do when a tornado comes through.  It was so tragic.  All of Raleigh grieved for the family, and you couldn't go anywhere without people talking about what happened.  We live a little over a mile from where that trailer park was.  Tornados are so erratic, so random, and there is almost nothing you can do if one descends upon you but ride it out and pray.  Lay down in the basement if you have one, far from any doors or windows, hang onto your loved ones... and pray.

I spent the next couple of weeks following the path of the tornado through town taking pictures where I could, and probably in some places I shouldn't have entered.  When Monica and I drove through that industrial section the day after the tornado, people were just beginning to try and clear the area of traffic and curious observers.  It really wasn't safe to walk around since no one could have known how stable any of the buildings were at that point, much less the piles of debris.  I developed this strange kind of relationship with the tornado as I tracked its course through the town I've lived in for nearly my entire life.  I felt like I was a detective trying to piece together a Bonnie and Clyde style trail of mayhem years after the fact.  Only a tornado acts much more like a baby having a temper tantrum than a couple hellbent on self destruction.  I found places where the twister wreaked havoc on one side of the street and left the other side intact.  Entire neighborhoods where nearly every house had some damage before the tornado picked itself up and spared the next cluster of homes.  Such destructive force, and so random... truly humbling.

One month after the outbreak of tornados that popped up all over the Southeast, an enormous tornado, category F-5, completely destroyed Joplin, Missouri.  The one that came through Raleigh was nothing by comparison.  At its strongest, the one that hit us was never more than an F-3, though it was weaker than that most of the time.  We know a woman who turned a corner and drove right into it, and a guy who lived on the road we used to practice on said he watched it bounce right over him and land a few blocks away.  Joplin was a very, very different story.  Tornados that big don't bounce over neighborhoods, they just destroy everything in their path.  That monster was a full mile wide. After spending so much time following the path of the tornado that hit Raleigh, I still can't imagine what those people went through, and I don't think I would have had the stomach to chronicle its destruction knowing that so many had suffered.  It was occasionally unnerving photographing what was left of people's homes, even knowing that the loss was nowhere near as great as it could have been.  For the most part, Raleigh took it on the chin and came out a little dazed, but okay. Two years later most of the evidence of what happened that day is in broken tree tops that still peek through new growth, and in yards that look emptier than they once did.  There are those who suffered more than others, but for the most part, my town dodged a bullet that day.  

Here are some of the photos I took.  I hope that you enjoy them...

These two shots were taken about a quarter mile from the building Loincloth and Confessor had practiced in for years until about six months before the tornado hit.

Shaw University was hit, and is only two blocks from our favorite Mexican restaurant.  Cristobal told me that a bunch of people rode it out in their walk in freezer.  The two guys on the right were visiting from New York.  They got a little more than they bargained for!

The tornado hit three historic cemeteries.  Mt. Hope Cemetery, City Cemetery, which goes back to the 1790's, and Oakwood Cemetery.

After the tornado went through downtown, it headed towards the high school where I met Monica.  Many of the neighborhoods around that area got hit pretty hard.  Raleigh is full of big oak trees, and they make quick work out of pine two by fours when they are coming down!

There was destruction everywhere you turned in this area of town.  Debris was piled as high as the stop signs and it was difficult to drive around it all.  Saws were running on every street I went down, and people were out helping each other.

This is what made me realize how serious the tornado was. Monica and I had only been driving around for about twenty minutes when we found these trucks flipped over.  This is maybe two miles from our house.  This was the last area the tornado hit before destroying the trailer park close to where we live.

This whole industrial area looked like a movie set.  As we pulled away, people were beginning to ask everyone to leave.  When I came back a day or so later the entire area was blocked off.  We got there just in time to snap a few photos the morning after the tornado hit.

This photo was taken about a mile and a half from our house. Most of the trees snapped off high enough that I couldn't see the breaks, but this one was right there at the edge of a school parking lot.

Unlike much of the damage from falling trees, this house was hit by the top of a tree instead of the trunk.  Trunks slice right through a house like a knife, but this tree was up on a hill and the top of it cracked the roof like a whip.  From the street I couldn't really see any damage, but the large pile of limbs in the front yard made me curious.

This entire house was pushed back off of its foundation.  The garage roof is what is closest to the camera.  The garage walls are gone, which explains why the roof is about twenty feet behind where it should be.  The garage sat on top of the knee high brick wall in the foreground.

This last shot was taken about four or five miles from my house.  There was one house that was lifted off of its foundation and dumped into a heap of rubble into the yard next to it.  Virtually every house in the neighborhood had massive damage from the tornado.  Despite so much destruction, kids were still playing basketball in their driveways.  Of all the things I saw in those two weeks, that was one of the things that stuck in my mind.  Life does go on, and whatever may be happening in your own personal life... it could always be worse.

Mi corazon esta muy pesado todavia, por su perdida, Sra.  Toda la ciudad se lloro para ti y para sus ninos.  Espero que puedas encuentra paz y felizidad en este mundo, antes a juntar sus angeles.  Yo se que ellos te estan esperando, y cuando los veas otra vez, nada que existe podria separar ustedes.  Que te vaya bien hoy mismo, manana, y para siempre. 

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