Squinting through the jet lag of my three flights in 24 hours (New York-London, London-New York, New York-Tuscaloosa), I was met at the airport by two of our colleagues. We set off from the airport onto local roads, then the interstate. The air smells wet, and carries the unmistakable smell of freshly exposed wood — the sheer tonnage of snapped, uprooted and shredded trees that this storm left behind, and the distinctive aroma that is released when a tree's insides are suddenly splayed open. The new air is trying to push in, in the wake of the raw energy that worked its way through this countryside. Our drive is typical of our work: We often arrive in places where tragedy is fresh, where others are being kept away or told to leave.
In our case, we were violating a 10 p.m. curfew by being on the interstate. And then, in keeping with the sweeping, swinging, twitching elephant trunk nature of an unpredictable monster storm, we come upon the first random prong of damage: cars in a pile, overturned violently and clustered around an underpass. A lone Alabama trooper, no doubt pulling his second 24-hour shift, stands guard with strobes flashing. Highway signs and steel water tanks are part of this entanglement. Huge piles of collected straw, grass and other small debris, inconsequential in the scope of this but notable on a normal day, are everywhere. And then they're not. The next mile of highway shows no scars. Our motel parking lot, miles from the heart of the damage (many other motels are damaged or without power or water) is full of freshly minted rental cars and well-worn news vans.
During our impromptu staff meeting in the lobby, while a flat-screen TV incongruously blares Oprah's interview with Rob Lowe, the manager approaches and tells us, solemnly, that the motel, as he gently puts it, "has been touched by this tragedy." My friend Garrett, sensing the sensitivity, took him around the corner for a chat. The manager tells him his front desk clerk, a 22-year-old working her way through college by working the night shift at an interstate motel, is gone. Her father is here. My eyes fill up — for a lot of reasons: the dread that I feel on assignments like this one, the sheer sadness of her loss — just a nice kid, not from a fancy family, but wanting a degree from Alabama and doing the work it requires. She's someone's pretty, lovely angel, and one man just a few floors below me is coming to grips with the fact that his life will never, ever be the same. And of course I'm thinking of my own 23-year-old daughter, suddenly so very far away from me in New York, and what I will say to her in an email tonight — and what I'll say to a torn-up, grieving father when I meet him. I will ask if there's anything I can do. But I imagine he'll say no.
There will be a lot of this tomorrow. Sadness. Kindness. Acts of volunteerism that are breathtaking. And entire vistas of scorched, upended, sanded and all-but-vacuumed earth.
The effort to educate more Americans to the dangers of tornadoes (badly needed and needs to be virtually nationwide) will owe its new urgency to this disaster. Put as simply as possible: 300 Americans, people from around here who were doing nothing wrong, were killed by highly energized air, over-fueled and perversely formed into a freakish vortex vacuum capable of doing to the surface of the earth pretty much anything the human mind and imagination can come up with.
I note another one of our guys has dropped off a bag of beef jerky in my room. It made me smile when I saw it — not just because of their kindness (the act of hunter/gathering as presented to a fellow man) but it’s the sheer utility of it that strikes me: That bag and its contents will be my staple meal in this region where restaurants are rubble and where local victims in need should always and unhesitatingly be given what food and other supplies are available.
This is going to be a long haul. One man in this hotel is working through the realization that he's not getting his 22-year old daughter back. For others, the need will be money, food, nails, boards, blue tarps (FEMA blue, we call it). But it's all about need here. And loss. And the people who, undamaged in any demonstrable way, are just going to have to live with the image — the knowledge and lifelong memory of having seen a monster, of historic size, the day everything changed in Tuscaloosa.