It is midnight. Monday. I am looking out the picture window of my living room in East Nashville. In the winter, when the leaves are gone from the trees, I can see the Grand Ole Opry sign glowing across Shelby Park. It’s one of my favorite things about my house — this North Star reminding me exactly where I am. I felt so lost before I moved here.
Tonight, I can’t see the sign or the stars. Only swirling clouds lit up by a crack of lightning every few seconds. I usually love the dynamism of Southern storms. In Oregon, where I’m from, a gray drizzle will settle over a city for days — a slow, stagnant, stifling drip. Here, storms roar in out of nowhere, vicious and angry and loud, and then they’re gone.
But I don’t love this storm. This storm feels … different. The sky is tinged green. There’s a low, building rumble in the distance that doesn’t sound like thunder. Something’s wrong.
I check my phone: “Confirmed tornado on the ground in East Nashville, heading toward Shelby Park.”
It is happening. The tornado sirens are blaring. I’m waking up Nick and grabbing my trembling little dog and we’re running out into the pounding hail and wind to get to the basement right now right now right now.
It is the morning after. My phone is full of messages from Nashville and Portland and Paris and Iowa City and Hilo and Baltimore and Brooklyn and Montreal. I respond to each one: “Thank you for checking on us. We’re OK. House is OK.” I think about all the worried, frantic messages from around the world pouring into Nashville’s bent and broken cell towers today. I think about all the people who can’t reply, “We’re OK. House is OK.”
It is Wednesday. I am driving to work, sitting in gridlock because there are only two unblocked roads out of East Nashville. I am looking out the window at a line of trees bursting with cherry blossoms fluttering in the wind. But they’re not cherry blossoms. They’re shreds of pink insulation ripped out of houses and impaled on branches. A beautiful lie.
Have you ever seen a photo of a big city taken with a tilt-shift lens? It distorts the perspective and creates a version of reality that looks like a scale model. Times Square becomes a jumble of toy cars and miniature buildings. The London Eye looks like the tiny ferris wheel of a flea circus.
A tornado tilt-shifts a city.
Telephone poles are scattered across the grass highway median like toothpicks. Gas station signs and smashed vehicles are tossed over the road as if a toddler threw a tantrum while playing with matchbox cars. Walls ripped off of homes reveal eerie dollhouse interiors — furniture still in place, family photos beaming above couches, a teacup sitting on a kitchen table — their intimate insides exposed.
The scale of destruction defies logic and belief. That can’t be a highway guardrail wrapped around a tree like a sheet of aluminum foil. That pile of bricks and broken glass can’t be what’s left of a store, a bar, a house.
This can’t be real. It must be a trick of the lens.
It is Thursday. I am driving home from work on a road to my neighborhood that just reopened. Every house on this street has been condemned. Some are missing walls. Some are missing roofs. Some have massive oak trees laying in the middle of their living rooms. Every house has a bright orange sign affixed to whatever surface is still intact. The sign says, “UNSAFE.”
A street over, the sun shines down on houses that are completely untouched. I’ve read about how tornadoes seem to have personalities, how their paths are so precise and inexplicable they seem calculated, vindictive. Why this house and not that one? How is a massive, unruly storm able to cut a surgical path through a city, determining fates block by block?
I wonder why we give hurricanes names, but not tornadoes. I am so angry at the violent vortex of air that did this and then vanished. I want to curse its name. I want something to hold onto.
It is Friday night. I am hugging my friend. Her building was directly in the path and her apartment was damaged beyond repair. “We hid in the stairwell,” she tells me. “It was so loud.” I never want to let her go.
It is Saturday. I am making my way through debris and detours to help some friends pack up their stuff and evacuate their building. On every corner, people are handing out food and water, offering trucks and chainsaws and labor to anyone who needs it. Everyone I talk to feels bad for someone who has it worse. “I didn’t lose my whole house,” they say. Or “I lost my house, but at least my job wasn’t affected.” After the storm, everyone finds a reason to feel lucky.
Another friend texts me. “I know I’m one of the lucky ones,” she says, “but I can’t stop crying.”
It is Sunday morning. Too many volunteers show up at community centers and work sites all over the city. Helpers are blocking the streets and crowding donation drop-offs, eager to pitch in. Organizers post pleas on Facebook, “Nashville volunteers: please go home. Please rest. Please, take care of yourself.”
I am drinking a cup of coffee and looking out the picture window of my living room in East Nashville. The sun is shining in a cloudless sky. If I squint, I can see the Grand Ole Opry sign across Shelby Park. I’m thinking about how lucky I am. I can’t stop crying.