Thursday, June 07, 2007

SPECIAL MID-WEEK COLUMN: Tornado

What is it that makes a catastrophe so perversely alluring? I mean, there must be a reason why crowds of onlookers gather at every house fire. Why TV shows with absurd titles like "World's Deadliest Animal Attacks" manage to attract viewers. Heck, why NASCAR even exists ("the thrill of competition," my fanny. Most of you are there to watch wrecks and you know it.)

I'm not immune to it, either. When the big flood of '93 broke, the news told us all to stay away. That served as the cue for me and my friends to pile in a car and go gawk at the chaos. In fact, we were the last car to cross Arsenal Island before it was closed for safety. We could have been swept away in that current, but we didn't care. We were high-fiving each other, living in the moment.

So when the news broke that a tornado had worked its way through Louisa & Muscatine counties, my friend and I decided to head out on Saturday to see the damage for ourselves. Besides, what better way to break in the new camera I'd just bought? Maybe I could get some good snapshots of upside-down cars or something. Little did I know we were en route to a life lesson.

We headed into Muscatine on Highway 22 and eagerly drove up to the lookout point by the bridge to Illinois. It looked like... well, downtown Muscatine. Seemingly unscathed. No upside-down cars, no paths of destruction. I'm ashamed to say we thought it was a let-down. Little did we know other parts of Muscatine were in tatters. We started driving south on back roads in search of Fruitland, the town that received the most damage.

I'm happy now that we didn't find it. Instead we got lost and sidetracked on a nice afternoon country drive. That's when we rounded the bend and stumbled into Grandview, IA.

The first thing you see when you drive into Grandview is an old farm school. Well, it SHOULD have been the first thing you see. Instead, we saw a brush pile almost three stories high in the school's parking lot. I didn't even have time to issue a token "what the...?" before we rounded the bend and saw the rest of town.

Well, what was left of it, anyways. This was the town that received the least amount of damage from the tornado. Coulda fooled me. It still looked like a bomb had gone off. I thought it would be exciting to see the aftermath of a tornado. I just never expected it to be so... real. A pile of rubble isn't so cool when you see the family who once lived in that pile, sifting through the remains for whatever possessions they could salvage. I was an idiot to think this would be some kind of pleasure sight-seeing expedition.

You could easily see the tornado's path through town. House on the left? Perfectly fine. House on the right? Rubble. In-between the destroyed homes was a clear trail of downed power lines, uprooted trees, and a stream of debris that I'm guessing stretches to Fruitland and beyond.

We drove by a house that looked like any other split-level home you've ever seen. Oh, except it was missing a roof. It wasn't like the roof had collapsed in on the house, or was lying near the house. It was just GONE, swept to Oz. In their lawn lay two mighty trees that once graced the front yard. Both had been plucked right out of the ground, roots and all, as if props in a model train set. Through the shattered windows, you could still see family photos hanging on the walls.

It was stomach-turning, heart-breaking, and mind-numbing all at once. It looked like a war zone. I didn't have the urge to gawk. I didn't have the urge to whip out my camera and start capturing it all on film. In fact, I didn't even think about the stupid camera. All I thought about was helping these people. This wasn't a tragedy worth remembering; it was a horror worth forgetting.

But therein lies the silver lining. In a tragedy, there's a doomed character destined to fail, you feel super sad, and then it's just over. In a horror, there's a bad guy, sure, but then you know what? They usually have happy endings. Jaws, Jason, Freddy... they all lose in the end. So, too, will this tornado.

In the chaos of Grandview was hope. Already trash was being hauled away, brush was being gathered. The Red Cross and Iowa Disaster Relief were already on hand, setting up tents with water and essentials for one and all. Neighbors whose homes were spared were in the yards of those less fortunate, lending hands of strength and support. As we navigated through the town, you could still hear children playing. You still saw people smiling through their tears. Grandview will recover. Fruitland will recover. Muscatine will recover. And we can help.

Today I called my friend Jamie Lange at the American Red Cross and donated my pay from this month's newspaper columns to the relief fund they've set up for the victims of Friday's tornado. I strongly urge you to give what you can. You can donate to the Red Cross by calling 1-800-HELP-NOW. You can even volunteer to lend a hand in the clean-up by calling 1-888-252-0260.

Iowa 1; Tornado 0. No need for a rematch.

1 comment:

Robbie said...

As a former staff at the American Red Cross Disaster Services, and current volunteer in the same capacity, I must admit, disaster can be a huge deal.

From a house fire, to a tornado, to a hurricane, families are in need. I have also been guilty of wanting to see the damage of a disaster for curiosities sake. But I suggest you get involved with the Red Cross in the future. Becoming a Red Cross disaster volunteer can be one of the most fulfilling opportunities of your life.