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Yesterday I wrote a commissioned piece about surviving tornadoes. I suppose it will get published this week or next – no link as of yet. I survived a tornado and I briefly included my experience in the story. Here, in greater detail, is what I remember.

It was the late evening of Wednesday, April 8, 1998. I lived in Dunwoody, just outside Atlanta. I was returning from a date with a pretty girl in neighboring Gwinnett County. I was rather happy, blissful even, otherwise I might have heeded the weather. There was nothing wrong per se but I should have noticed the strange signs of a storm approaching.

The sky as I recall was an electric neon color. The night sky in any big city has an artificial glow but this one was different. There was an odd pink/purple hazy too it. There was also a strange, near ominous feeling in the air. That I take was the barometric pressure. I paid no attention at all and drove on.

I got home around midnight. Being young and all that I decided to stay up late (as usual) so I cracked a beer and settled in for a little Idiot-vision. It was beginning to rain at that point – hard. Then the power went off. I took that as my cue to go to bed.

I lived in an upscale mid-rise apartment complex just north of I-285. My bedroom had a huge picture-window which looked out upon a small alley, across to a line of younger pine trees, and then beyond to a fire station. Beyond the fire station was a home for invalids and then a nice, large residential neighborhood.

As I lay there trying to fall asleep I did take note of the driving rain and the wind, which was beginning to howl. However, it was the lightning that got me up. It was constant like a strobe-light. The thunder melded together into a nearly solid roar – yes, like an approaching train. I ventured to the window.

Looking out, through a gray wall of horizontal, swirling rain, I saw the line of trees bent over at almost a right angle. Everything was well illuminated by the lightning flashes. Erie, I thought.

Putting these things – the wind, the lightening, the roar – together I should have immediately descended into the concrete underground garage below my apartment. Yet being young, stupid, blissful, and tired I merely went back to bed. I put a pillow over my eyes to block the flashes. So it was that I slept (rather well) through the Great Dunwoody Tornado of 1998.

I woke up on time and everything seemed well. The power was still out so I skipped coffee and took a cold shower in the dark. I dressed for work and headed out. Outside there were signs of a bad storm all over the place – tree limbs, leaves, shingles, trash everywhere. I STILL thought nothing of it.

It was only when I got to the complex entrance and found it blocked by the fire department and the National Guard that I realized something was wrong. They were in the street and were busy setting up tents and command posts across the way in a school parking lot.

I asked a police officer on site what had happened. He said a tornado passed through the nice, large residential neighborhood. Things were very bad. All the streets were blocked for about half a mile and I wasn’t going anywhere that morning. The power was out in a considerable portion of the city. Worse, or luckily, the storm had passed within 500 – 1,000 feet of my alley window and I was lucky to be alive.

The phones were out too. Even my ancient, analog cellphone was of no use as several towers were collapsed in the night. I found a pay phone that did work. I called my boss. No answer. I called my boss’s boss. No answer. I called the president of the company. He was thrilled to hear I was alive. No-one it seemed would be working that Thursday. I called my dad and said, “I’m okay.” 150 miles away he wasn’t sure what I was talking about.

With nothing to do I went home and mulled about in the dark. The power was off all day. Eventually I ventured out again. A few of us banded together and decided to go walking to see how bad it was. My neighbor a few doors down was a police officer. His uniform got us a bit further than we might otherwise been permitted.

The scene was shocking. Our place, the school, the fire house, the invalid home, and the neighborhood park had all sustained minor damage. Trees were down all over. But the houses in the neighborhood were in terrible shape – the ones that were still standing.

It looked like a war zone. Trees lay on or in houses. Roofs were missing. Debris was everywhere. As we walked and talked with survivors and rescue workers we learned that a man had died. He was in bed when a tree fell through the roof and crushed him in his sleep. I think someone else also died nearby. Very few others were injured. That’s a miracle considering the devastation.

I got a much better look a few days later. I flew over the area in my (rented) Cessna 172 out of PDK. The strong EF2 had been about a mile wide. It cut straight through town making a giant rough swath of destruction as far as the eye could see – even from 3,000 feet.

By then insurance adjusters, GEMA, FEMA, and some contractors had been out. *I learned from this – as an aside – to never trust FEMA.* Maybe a thousand homes had been hit. Many were sporting blue plastic tarps on their roofs. The Neighborhood was called Fontainebleau. I renamed it Blue Tarp Village.

nws_dunwoody_tornado

BTV before the tarps went on. NWS.

That episode was nearly 20 years ago. Time flies by like pine trees in a storm. I had mostly forgotten the event until I wrote that other article. I don’t care to ever relive such a story. But I did live through it.

If you find yourself in a similar situation late one night don’t put a pillow over your head. That’s not taking adequate cover. Pay attention to warning signs. There will be plenty of them and they are quite obvious. If not, well, I hope your date was that blissful too.

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