I spent the day shooting tornado damage. While driving between assignments, I was trying to remember how many tornadoes I have seen or at least worked the aftermath. The first tornado I remember was the 1974 tornado outbreak. We were under our house as the storm hit. The roof was ripped of part of my grade school. I saw the '89 tornado move down Airport Road, wrapped in rain. I had been working as a photojournalist for just over a year. I've seen the aftermath of more than a dozen smaller tornadoes which hit communities from New Hope to Fayetteville. I figure I have seen or been in the path of two dozen tornadoes, most since working as a photographer.
I'm no expert, but I feel fairly confident when working around tornadoes. I have taken storm spotter training. I keep very aware and listen to the police and emergency management folks on the radio, they are always pretty much on top of it. A couple times I have been closer than I would have liked. Once, I was on an overpass and really shouldn't have been. Another time, chasing a rare December tornado, I was right behind it and almost wrecked my car. On Friday, I had rushed to the path of a tornado that had just passed, only to find myself in the path of a second tornado. As the hail fell all around, I realized I was in a bad spot. I just wasn't expecting the back to back tornadoes. I think the second tornado passed within a half a mile, it flipped an 18-wheeler just down the road from me. I owe my guardian angel a beer.
It sounds jaded, I know, but the images are always the same. There is pink insulation covering the ground like a surreal snow. The trees are jagged and broken. The homes look like matchsticks. Cars are crushed like cans. As much as I hate to say it, the looks on the people are the same. The stunned, empty look as they try to figure out what happened, where there house is, and sometimes, what street they are walking down. You look for the rescuer making their way through the rubble, the homeowner salvaging what they can from the rubble, the hugs and the tears. If they are lucky, they just lost their home or a car. At worst, they lose a loved one.
Some tornadoes are worse than others. The April 27 tornado wiped the earth clean wherever it touched down. It was like demons took an eraser and just cleaned a mile wide strip of land. There was just nothing left, nothing at all. The tornadoes on Friday, while awful, damaged a much smaller path and the level of destruction was much less. But, if it was your home in the direct path, it didn't matter.
It is unbelievable these tornadoes took the exact same path as the April 27th tornadoes. While shooting the damage and clean-up, I had a hard time telling what damage was from this tornado and from the April 27th tornado. Finally I started to see the color of the wood as the indicator of recent destruction. If it was yellow, clean wood - it was the latest tornado. If the shattered homes were showing darker, weathered wood - they were destroyed in the April 27th storms. I was shooting on the same roads as before, Yarbrough Road, Jeff Road, Anderson Hills. This is the third time Anderson Hills has been hit by a tornado. It's just chance that it happened this way, but people have come up with all sorts of theories why these three tornadoes would follow the same path - gravity waves, the shape of the land, and proximity to the mountains. I think it's just chance, but don't tell that to someone's home that has been hit twice by a twister.
A few years ago I found my film from the '89 tornado on Airport Road. I was looking through the images of the destroyed Goldbro, Holy Spirit Church, Winn Dixie, the Westbury Apartments. Most things I remembered. The images stick with me in my mind - it was the first major natural disaster I had ever photographed. To this day it is one of the biggest news events I have ever covered.
While looking through the images, I kept finding these photos of dead pets. A dead dog in the rubble or a dead cat in the road. I had a handful of these photos. Horrible photos. I don't remember shooting any of them. Not at all. I was quite shocked, in fact, when I saw I had shot them. I just didn't remember them. It's funny how the mind can block the bad from our memory. I think that is a good thing. I don't know if we could survive if we remembered the horrible things with the intensity with which they happened.
What we do remember are the people helping one another. The way the neighbors help clear the property. The meal cooked for the family that lost a home. The tree cut down off a house. All theses acts of kindness weave together to make us stronger than the destruction. It make some sense of the chaos, and to give us hope for something better. So, tomorrow or the next day, when I'm shooting the tornado recovery or the next tornado I won't be looking for images of destruction. I'll be looking for images of hope.