Coastal Alabama hurricane veteran learns a lesson about upstate tornadoes

Limestone County, Ala., tornado damage recorded April 30.

As the EF3 tornado cut through Limestone County last month, my family sat huddled in the community storm shelter near Madison. My wife cradled our restless newborn while I distracted our other children with homespun fairy tales and waited for the worst to pass.

It was crowded and uncomfortable, but safe. Thunder rumbled, the lights blinked and I asked my children how they were doing. “This is fun,” said my seven-year old son. His eight-year old sister added, “Yeah, this is so exciting.”

I was worried sick, of course. Still, their youthful exuberance in the face of the tornado brought back memories of my childhood weather threat – hurricanes.

I was four-years old when Hurricane Frederic struck Mobile in 1979, hammering my hometown with its category four winds. The aftermath was a grown-up’s nightmare – modern life’s conveniences were lost overnight. But it was a little boy’s paradise.

We cooked dinner in our fireplace, my days were spent climbing along fallen pine and oak trees, and my nights were filled with storytelling by the light of kerosene lanterns. There were even horses in my neighborhood, pulling trees from streets in Country Club Village that remained inaccessible to heavy machinery. Best of all, for little boys, there was nothing to do but explore and play in a world made new.

The years passed and I gradually gained an appreciation for the destructive power of wind and rain. I covered the approach of hurricanes as a reporter for the Mobile Register, and responded to their aftermath as a member of the Alabama Army National Guard. I saw city blocks covered neck-deep with sand, neighborhoods covered with water, and roads so full of trees that you couldn’t tell where the woods ended and the asphalt began. These were serious storms, and they were to be treated seriously.

As my respect for the power of hurricanes grew, my pride in living through them grew even larger. When I moved away, I’d hear stories of tornadoes, blizzards, sandstorms, floods, earthquakes, wildfires and even volcanoes. I’d listen to their tales, then shrug and say, “That ain’t got nothing on a cat’ four or five hurricane.”

I moved back to Alabama a couple of years ago, to Huntsville, shortly after the area suffered a string of deadly tornadoes. I was reminded that the region was named Dixie Ally because it was prone to violent and long-lasting tornados. In 2013, the Huntsville/Madison County area was rated No. 1 in a ranking of the top tornado cities in the country.

Folks told me to buy a storm shelter, but its price kept it on the bottom of my to-do list. It just wasn’t that important, until the hour that it became the most important thing in the world.

The radio buzzed and we heard a tornado was headed toward our area. We piled into the minivan and drove amid darkness and rain to the community storm shelter. While there, I learned that the most stressful part of a tornado, at least for me, is the suddenness of the threat, followed by the long and uncertain wait, ending with random disaster.

It reminded me of the short-lived mortar attacks in Baghdad. Those weren’t full-scale bombings where preparation and death were widespread, but they were – like tornados – often quick, random and completely deadly within a precise area. The effect is a kind of razor-edged terror. When single, I found comfort in that randomness and felt strangely relaxed. As a father, it scares me to death; I don’t know when or from where the threat is coming.

It was a small storm, by Dixie Alley standards. My family was only briefly uncomfortable, and we left the shelter grateful for the assistance of its volunteers.

The people of my new home in northern Alabama carried-on after the tornado, just as the people of my boyhood home in southern Alabama carry-on after hurricanes. Bodies are buried, wounds treated and homes and roads repaired. Kids still play in the aftermath, and parents still worry. Life goes on.

Meanwhile, this proud veteran of several Gulf Coast hurricanes learned a lesson about living in Dixie Alley. The next afternoon I put a down payment on a tornado shelter.

(J. Pepper Bryars grew up in Mobile and is now a writer living in Huntsville. Contact him at and