It’s said that conservationist John Muir liked to climb a tree during a storm so he could experience the full force of nature’s power.
If he had tried that in Amite County on Monday afternoon, he might have never lived to become the “Father of National Parks.”
I thought about that when I stood on my front porch at 3 p.m. and felt a wall of wind out of the west, blowing rain the full length of my covered 42-foot porch.
We had already received several tornado warnings via our cell phones, and Angelyn was ready to head for the hall or bathroom — right then.
Not me. I wanted to see what was going on — though I decided not to climb a tree.
Unknown to me, at that moment the storm was mowing down forests, ripping roofs off houses and smashing trailers to smithereens.
The weather calmed and I went inside. Another, slightly weaker front roared past, then just rain.
Enterprise-Journal managing editor Matt Williamson called to say one or more tornadoes had struck in my vicinity. I checked with Amite County Civil Defense Director Grant McCurley, who was busy cutting his way through fallen trees to get to some injured folks on Dixon Road. He suggested I go up Highway 567 north of Liberty to see the worst damage.
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I pulled on a red raincoat, blaze-orange cap and rubber boots and headed out. I drove to Highway 567 on the west side of Liberty and turned north.
Just past Graves Road, I saw a scene of destruction — houses missing roofs, power lines askew, giant trees snapped, whole forests obliterated — along with stalled traffic, emergency vehicles and workers, and flashing lights.
I parked in a driveway, grabbed a notebook, cell phone and camera, and set out on foot. Rain fell in intermittent waves as I walked from house to house interviewing stunned people who had lost roofs or entire homes.
With mangled forest stretching in every direction, I wondered what happened to the wildlife during the tornado. Wild animals are wired for survival, but when the trees were falling every which way and limbs were flying through the air, I’m sure some didn’t make it.
After an hour or two of walking, talking and photographing, I was soaked through. My camera was fogged up, my notebook was soggy, and it was getting dark.
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Back home, a friend called, telling me a neighbor of mine had lost the roof to his unoccupied house just a mile from me. Though it was well after dark, I decided to check it out.
Houses were black from a power outage (which fortunately didn’t affect me this time). I turned down the neighbor’s road and stopped when I came to a fallen tree tangled in power lines.
I got out and, carrying a hand-held flashlight, started walking. My rain coat was soaked so I was wearing a jean jacket.
For half a mile or so I sidestepped power lines, a toppled power pole and another fallen tree. It was eerie all alone in the dark, a light mist falling, distant lightning, the sky all weird from the tortured storm system that wasn’t completely past.
I flinched at a grunt to my right and shined my light on Holstein cows bunched up together in the chilly drizzle, munching hedge leaves behind a barbed wire fence next to the road. They stared at me balefully.
I reached the brick house, which looked pretty much intact except for one detail: There was no roof. It was as if it had been sliced off.
I heard a weird beeping inside, probably the battery alarm to a dying freezer. Behind the house was a tangle of wires, tin and debris. I didn’t touch anything, not wanting to take any chances with residual electricity.
Evidently the storm had blown this roof off at the same time I was standing on my front porch feeling nature’s power.
Who knows why a tornado takes one house and not another? Tornadoes are known for quirky behavior.
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Based on my interviews with survivors, the bathroom — specifically, the tub — was the safest place to be during the tornado. At least four people I talked to emerged unscathed because they took shelter there.
One man was hiding in his bathroom when the storm ripped off the roof and brick wall of the next room. Another man was hunkered down in the tub when the entire house lifted him and three others and carried them across the yard. Elsewhere, a mother and child crouched in the tub reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Clean-up and rebuilding will take a long time. Already churches, organizations and individuals are gearing up to help the victims.
Christmas 2019 — this is a good time to give to those in need, and they are right here among us.