This piece was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
The Wizard of Oz. That’s my earliest memory of the power of a tornado. From the time I saw that witch riding a bicycle in the air with that house spinning out of control, the power of a tornado had me under its thumb. As a five-year-old, I had no idea how close I would come to that dominance that struck so much fear in me as a child.
West Tennessee, and Jackson in particular, is no stranger to tornadoes. As much as we think tornadoes are an indiscriminate act of nature, they’re not. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a study conducted about tornado fatalities found that “while the ‘tornado alley’ region of the Great Plains has the most frequent occurrence of tornadoes, most tornado fatalities occur in the nation’s Mid-South region, which includes parts of Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi.” Without getting into weather patterns, the explanation for the majority of fatalities in our region comes down to four factors: nighttime tornadoes, forested areas, complacency, and manufactured home density. Because of our region’s amount of forested areas, storm spotters and weather experts have a more difficult time seeing the direction of a tornado or spotting it when it forms. Also the number of tornadoes that occur after dark are more prevalent in the Southeast than any other region of the United States. Regardless of these reasons, the fact remains that Jackson has been affected in detrimental ways by tornadoes, especially over the last fifteen years.
On January 17, 1999, an F4 tornado tore through south Jackson, midtown, and Beech Bluff. Six people died that night. I was at Calvary Baptist Church that Sunday evening when the sirens sounded. A close friend of mine lost her father that night and ended up in the hospital herself. I remember visiting the girl’s mother a few months later in their new home in a new part of town, stumbling through clichés and empty phrases that I thought would make a difference.
On the way home the night of the storm, the Bypass was darker than I had ever seen it. No stoplights, no streetlights, no business sign lights as I passed North Parkway. It was like a different world—something from McCarthy’s The Road or some other apocalyptic tale. When I got home, my mom had lit candles because our power was out. The next morning, I walked two streets over and saw piles of lumber from houses that had been decimated by the storm the night before. As I cut through my backyard, I saw a piece of someone’s roof, at least twelve feet tall and six feet wide, driven into my neighbor’s yard,. I remember piling pieces of wood at the edge of Westwood and trying to wrap my head around the power of something that could rip a roof from a house and violently jam it into the ground half a mile away. How would the older lady whose house was destroyed even begin to recover the belongings she lost?
It’s interesting the sorts of things that are said to try to soften the blow of disaster. Disaster is disaster, and, in the moment, no words sufficiently soften the pain of the loss that has been endured. “God’s Will” and “Sovereignty” and “Romans 8:28” are simply empty phrases with good intentions the morning after a person has lost everything. Up to that point, I had never seen devastation like that in person.
The world in which we live is a physical world. We mark our steps by the objects around us. In the middle of the night, we know how many steps we can take in our dark bedroom before we stub our toe on the dresser. We grow to expect things to be in a certain place even when we can’t see them. It startles us when someone moves something to the other side of the room or rearranges a piece of furniture. We have to recalibrate and snap a new picture with our brain. What’s even more unsettling is when a physical object that you have come to expect to be in a certain place ceases to exist in its previous physical state. On May 5, 2003, another F4 tornado spun through the darkness, decimating downtown and ripping through east Jackson, leaving hundreds of people with no place to live. This storm didn’t spin its way through the rural areas of Jackson; it attacked the city at its heart.
The tornado touched down first in western Madison County and initially was only an F1 classification. As the storm moved east, it began to gather more energy and plowed its way toward downtown Jackson. The closer it got to this area, the stronger the cell became and hit its peak ferocity just as it arrived in downtown. It slammed through buildings and shattered windows and obliterated historical landmarks that had stood for over a hundred years. Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, built in 1845, was annihilated in just a few seconds. The farmers’ market received damage as well as Nando Jones, a clothing store that my granddad used to take me to when I was young. Businesses stayed boarded up for weeks after the storm, some recovering
and some not.
After the storm passed through downtown, it weakened some but still continued to inflict damage through the area. Phillips Street was hit hard as well as Cartmell Street. Parkview Courts was damaged along with other affordable housing buildings in the area. What made matters more difficult was the number of rental houses that were hurt. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) became involved in the cleanup and recovery process, a deadline was placed on each damaged home to have debris moved or, if the home was irreparable, to have it torn down. If these conditions were not met, FEMA would have cut our town’s aid from 75% to 50%. Many of the owners of the properties could not be reached, and the tenants of the property could only do so much. The physical destruction of property and the loss of lives are awful results of a tornado, but the nightmare extends far beyond the night of the storm.
The city of Jackson ended up partnering with the Ferguson Group to help with government agencies such as FEMA. According to their website, the Ferguson Group “worked closely with the city, its congressional delegation, FEMA, and HUD to facilitate the type of partnership necessary to address the level of devastation Jackson experienced.” Additionally, “Jackson was awarded $10.9 million in HUD funding to demolish the outdated housing stock and create new affordable, high quality housing for many of the city’s poorest residents. A revitalized east Jackson [was]
set to encompass single, detached, and multi-family mixed income housing and appropriate commercial developments.”
The word “revitalized” can be somewhat ambiguous. New affordable housing was built within two years after the storm. However, since 2003, east Jackson has not been revitalized nor has it received the same level of attention as the downtown area. Homes were demolished, businesses were lost, and lives were taken—eleven to be exact. The heart of our city has been rebuilt with the help of federal money and people that had a vision of what our town could become. Downtown Jackson is finally seeing a clearing and is well on the way to being a vibrant part of our city. East Jackson is still waiting.
In his essay “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about the transparent eyeball. His belief was that a person should not only view nature or admire nature but also allow nature to take over his senses—to let nature flow through him. The transparent eyeball doesn’t simply see; it allows a passing through and becomes a “part or particle of God.” There are some aspects of nature, though, that no one wants to experience, much less become one with.
The power went out around 6:30 that night. I started lighting candles like my mom did nine years earlier. The sirens were going off, too. My daughter Jordan and I went through our nightly ritual of a bath, a story, and those one-piece pajamas that are always harder to put on that you would think. I put her down around 7 p.m., but ten minutes later I was walking back to her room because hail was peppering our windows.
When I walked into Jordan’s room, she was standing up in her crib. I guess the hail had startled her, too. I picked her up and walked through the kitchen and into our dining room, standing at a big arch window at the front of our house. It didn’t occur to me then that placing us beside a giant piece of glass probably wasn’t the safest plan for my one-year-old daughter. As we stood there, waiting, the sky lit with a blue flash of lightning. As soon as the sky went blue, I saw a wide, funnel-shaped wall that I knew was making its way toward my house. I had never felt as helpless as I did in that moment, holding my daughter in my left arm with no way to communicate to her what was happening. I knew there was nothing I could do to stop what I had seen outside that window. I purposefully walked to our closet and shut the door.
I couldn’t see Jordan, and she couldn’t see me. I heard something smash through a window in our house. My ears began to pop like they do when the altitude changes on an airplane. Then I could feel the air pressure change as the rumble began to shake the house. The panes of the windows rattled, and I knew that at any moment the roof would be sucked away from the frame of our home. Jordan had shifted while I was holding her, and she had both arms around my neck. I could feel her grip tighten as the atmosphere strained against itself. In that moment, she couldn’t communicate with words, but I knew she was afraid. I knew that she and I were experiencing all the same things. So we waited in that closet for whatever would happen.
Once it was over, it was over. No one told us so; we just knew it. What I remember most is how quickly it got cold. Our power was out, so the heat didn’t work. My parents came and got Jordan to take her to their house by the hospital because they still had power. After they picked her up, I walked around our subdivision. A house next to our neighbor’s was decimated. There was a pile of rubble, and the couple survived only because they sat in their bathtub with a mattress over them.
Over the course of the next day, I learned that Union University had been hit right before the tornado made its way to my neighborhood. Three dormitories had been wrecked. A student came to live with us for a few days before the school found a place for her. Miraculously, no one was killed. The third F4 tornado to hit Jackson in nine years destroyed homes and buildings but didn’t take a life. Maybe we were better prepared as a community. Maybe we just got lucky. Either way, our town has to be prepared for more severe weather because it will come. Tornadoes are a part of who we are as a community. They have given us a chance to grow something from destruction.
I’ve never been good about trying to understand why harmful things happen to people or to cities. I think the answers to those questions are much more complicated than we want to think. It’s comfortable for us to give simple answers to complex issues because we maintain control over those events that are uncontrollable. The storms our town experienced over the last ten years have definitely changed the complexion of our city. Like any detrimental event in our lives, we have to evolve or be stuck in grief. Our town has evolved and is evolving, but we have to progress in ways that benefit everyone in our community, not just a few. Through all of these storms, we have continued to move forward. My hope is that our perseverance will continue and that whatever damage we are dealt, we will find a way to grow despite the hindrances in our way.
Gabe Hart is an English and Language Arts teacher at Northeast Middle School. He was born and raised in Jackson, graduating from Jackson Central-Merry in 1997 and Union University in 2001. Gabe enjoys spending time and traveling with his daughter, Jordan, who is eight years old. His hobbies include reading, writing, and playing sports . . . even though he’s getting too old for the last one. Gabe lives in Midtown Jackson and has a desire to see all of Jackson grow together.
Photography by Danny Murphy.