My Friends And I Were Right In The Path Of Sunday Night’s Biggest Tornado, And While We’re All Physically OK, I’ve Been Paying Emotional Tolls All Week.
Monday was a particularly shit day for me: I got into an argument with my girlfriend, I got into a text spat with a friend and I was shit to my colleagues — all before noon.
Wasn’t till later in the day that I remembered there might’ve been a reason for my early-morning hysterics: Oh yeah, you kinda thought you were going to die on Sunday night.
I’ve lived in Texas for almost 12 years now. I don’t have the tornadic tales that those who’ve lived in our state’s more rural areas tell, but I’ve accumulated my share of stories and close calls. Mostly, I laugh now when I remember being so frightened of tornadoes upon moving to Dallas back in early ’08; I spent countless nights back in my first Lower Greenville apartment staying up late, watching Pete Delkus on WFAA, clutching a throw pillow and wondering where in the hell in this otherwise well-windowed one-bedroom apartment I was supposed to take cover should those far-off monsters on the TV ever approach Downtown Dallas.
Wasn’t till September 2010 that I earned my first real stripes as a tornado-fearing Texan. I was on the seventh-floor offices of the Dallas Observer and passively paying attention to the tornado-teasing weather updates on my Twitter feed when my only other co-worker still in the building that evening shouted bloody murder — she’d just seen a tornado touch down outside of her west-facing office window. Together, we sprinted down 10 flights of stairs, all the way to the bottom floor of our building’s underground parking garage, where we were met by some custodial workers, a security guard and a handful of other after-hours stragglers. The lot of us stayed down there together for an hour or so, trying to get enough of a cell phone signal to update our web browsers’ weather radars before eventually starting the long walk up the parking garage ramps, hopeful that we’d emerge to an intact landscape. Our immediate area was OK; the damage had mostly hit a few miles away in West Dallas.
What my friends and I faced this past Sunday night was worse.
It started out as a great time. Our fantasy football group was gathering for an annual Sunday night Dallas Cowboys-watching party hosted by our league’s resident, award-winning amateur barbecue chef/record executive, who’d been smoking brisket, ribs and chicken in his North Dallas home for hours in anticipation of our arrival. We all ate more than our full — it’s safe to say that most of us went back for thirds — while watching the Cowboys coast to a 27-7 halftime lead over the Eagles. We’d took passing notice of the lightning-filled skies throughout, but didn’t think too much of it — excepting our host, who noticed the warnings in the upper left-hand corner of the game broadcast and mentioned with a bit of nervous energy that he’d lived through the Red River Valley’s infamous 59 tornado outbreak of 1979 as a kid. At one point, as the rest of us were watching a mid-commercial NBC5 weather break-in and trying to convince ourselves that weatherman Rick Mitchell wasn’t laying out a tornado path that was set to go right over this house we were at, our host pointed out a bathroom across the hall: “There’s no windows on that side of the house,” he said. “That’s where we’re headed if it comes to it.”
It came to it.
A few days removed from the night, it’s tough to remember the exact order of what happened next. It all happened so fast: Our cells phones all buzzed at once with warnings to seek shelter, nearby sirens started whirring and the power went out after dimming a few times first. In the dark, we turned to social media for clues about what was happening around us. Everyone else in the neighborhood must have been trying to do the same; I had trouble getting Facebook Live broadcasts from professional area meteorologists to play on my phone. Eventually, we found some amateur weather hounds broadcasting on Twitter and saying they’d seen a funnel cloud touch down around the close-by High Five Interchange.
Given all the yells emitting from that live feed, we maybe didn’t notice how quiet things had suddenly become in our immediate vicinity. But we couldn’t possibly ignore what followed: A high-pitched whistle sound surrounded us. Later, we figured high-pressure winds blowing through the house’s weather stripping was the culprit for that noise; in the moment, though, we were more focused on our host, who shouted a quick command: “Bathroom! Now!”
A handful from our party went to an interior closet in one of the bedrooms, but the remaining 10 of us — plus a couple of dogs, too — all crammed inside of that tight bathroom space. Three of us crouched together into the bathtub to make room for the rest of the group, our backs against the house’s outer wall. That whistle sound still going, we could now feel the wall quivering behind us — it shook like I imagine a massage bed in a cheap motel might.
One of my friends let out a nervous chuckle. Another had trouble catching her breath. No one said anything else. Or otherwise obliviously boisterous gang just silently waited for whatever inevitability we had coming to arrive. Didn’t know what else we could do, really.
I don’t know how long we were in there. Could’ve been 30 seconds. Maybe it was five minutes, or even 10. Eventually, someone broke the silence: “I think it’s passed us.”
We slowly stood and exited the cramped bathroom. It was still raining outside, but we walked out in it regardless to assess the damage. A massive branch was down in our host’s backyard. His patio furniture was scattered all over the place, too. He quickly noticed that a new stretch of fence he’d just built along one side of his property had been knocked over, and he let out an exasperated sigh over that; seconds later, we realized that the rest of the fencing all around his yard had been similarly downed.
Out front, we saw more destruction. Our host’s mailbox had been pulled off it its mooring and thrown across his yard. It lay in the middle of his sidewalk, looking like a confused deer caught in our cell phone flashlights. It was surrounded by other refuse: chunks of siding that we later determined was once part of the chimney that a house across the street had lost; a pool cover that didn’t seem to come from any of the immediately surrounding (and pool-less) homes that was slapped up against the side of our host’s home; downed branches of varying sizes that were scattered in all directions. We got lucky there, for sure: Out in the street, two of our party’s cars were parked immediately beside a 50-foot branch that had snapped off of its trunk in this heavily wooded community near Richland College; its outer limbs had come to rest on top and next to their cars, but most of that load was being carried by the branch’s outer limbs. With only minimal effort, we were able to coax those cars out from under their precarious positions — but only in one direction along the street, which was blocked off another 40 yards down by similarly downed tree. Those drivers would eventually be forced to abandon their cars for the night. I drove one of those cars’ pools back to their own home some 15 or so minutes later.
I guess the Cowboys game was still going at that point, but we couldn’t follow along without power. We all checked in with one another one last time, marveled at the situation we’d just found ourselves in, ensured that everyone was OK, gathered our things and headed off into the night. Power was out for miles surrounding the house, and the roads were littered with downed limbs that had to be dodged as you drove. The damage all seemed laid out along a pretty clear pathway; it didn’t take much to determine that a tornado had obviously touched down near the house we were at, and followed a lane that took it right over where we’d been.
When I finally got home, I couldn’t sleep. I just kept scrolling through my phone, checking out all the reactions being shared to social media. I marveled at the early damage reports coming in from across the city at spots like KNON. I got chills as video captures of tornadoes touching down across the region started getting passed around. It was pretty clear how lucky we were to not suffer worse damage at our party. At some point in the wee hours, I finally drifted off, exhausted.
Monday morning, as the rest city was coming to terms with the fact that it had suffered more than $2 billion in damage at the hands of at least 10 National Weather Service-confirmed tornadoes — including the biggest one, an EF-3 with its 140-mph winds, that passed over my friend’s house — I found myself in something of a daze. When a friend from Sunday’s party texted the group to ask if we too were feeling emotionally and physically spent after the adrenaline rush had worn off, I realized that I’d been suffering from that exact same thing — kinda like when you’re depressed but don’t realize it until someone else points it out for you.
I’d spent my morning snapping at people, annoyed at the world, distant from everything and being anything but productive. That text helped me come to terms with why I was acting that way. The human body and mind are weird like that. In precarious moments like the one we’d faced, a sort of autopilot kicks in; only once it shuts down do we ever realize what happened, what we’d actually experienced. That text was my Big Reveal. It didn’t break me from my daze — I’m still in it, frankly — but it’s helped me accept what I’ve really been going through: residual fear.
I don’t know if it’s dramatic of me to think that my friends and I all could’ve died on Sunday night. Maybe it is. But it’s what I’ve been thinking about over and over, still quite shaken up, all these days later in the wake of those frightening few minutes. I keep coming back to it in my head, shocked at how lucky we were to walk away from that tornado. When the wall at my back began to shake, I was at peace with the worst being seconds away from happening.
I think that’s why it’s been tough for me to wrap my head around the fact that no one in Dallas died during that night’s storms. I’m glad to hear it, obviously. But looking at all of the quite substantial and very real damage Dallas suffered as a result of these tornadoes, and given what I faced myself, it’s just a difficult thing to me to reconcile. I’m of course relieved that my friends and I are all OK. I’m thrilled that the damage at my friend’s house, and all around the city, wasn’t worse than it maybe could’ve been. I’m thankful that, even with roads still closed, and schools and landmarks flattened, the things that our region lost on Sunday night are mostly just that — things. They can all be either repaired, rebuilt or replaced.
Life goes on, right?
It just goes on a little weirder after a night like Sunday, though. That much I’m sure of now.
The tornadoes might’ve passed, but — for the many of us who were in their paths — I imagine they’ll linger for some time. Storms like those, I now realize, can damage us in a number of ways. Just like physical wreckage, emotional wreckage takes time to clear too. You just keep sweeping away the refuse one little bit at a time, I suppose, hoping that each day will be better than the last.
That’s what I’ve been trying to do, anyway. It seems to be working. Today was better than yesterday. Yesterday was better than the day before.
Things will all the way clear up eventually. They always do, right? Takes time, is all.
Just like everything else, I imagine.
Cover photo of just one of the paths of Sunday’s tornadoes by Adam Dutton.