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It is folly to assume that
Fortune ever adequately insulates us from herself.
May’s beauty has a
scar on it this year, left by April.
The day began sultry,
with listless breezes, first from one direction, then from another.
By early afternoon predictions of heavy rain turned ominous, and,
what looked like an angry fist protruded from the storm front
pictured on television.
The sky was a yellow
brown to the north of us, and I heard what some have described as
the sound of a train. It was the awesome sound of the heavens
inhaling the earth.
The lights went out at
2:28. Soon after we heard the sirens. The River Bridge filled with
flashing lights as help poured in from nearby counties. The battery
radio warned of another storm approaching Nashville from the west.
Refugees began arriving, workers from the farm, family, and
Photo by Brandon Puttbrese in The
An expectant mother
with her young child had been trying to reach the shelter of her
Mother-in-law’s home with its basement, when she saw the tornado
headed straight for her up Nichols Lane. She did a U-turn and sped
ahead of it to Highway 109, where she turned south and encountered
our farm manager, who led her to our house. We spent a candlelit
evening with new friends, all trying to reach family via jammed
circuits. It was nice, said one young girl, just to have someone to
Our two exit routes
were blocked – Lock Four Road, by fallen trees and electrical wires,
and Highway 109, where several were killed near a convenience market
and a steel-framed electrical supply business, which was reduced to
a small pile of rubble. The owner’s son was killed as he pushed a
passerby into the last available space in a packed inner room.
The world at large
could see our neighborhood long before we could. Nationwide
television gave Gallatin its fifteen minutes of fame, and calls and
emails poured in from those stunned by pictures of destruction. With
roads and power cut off, we could only hear of it via telephone from
people seeing us from far away.
Out of the chaos we
pick remnants and conclusions.
It might have been
much worse. We were warned - children were locked down in their
schools, and people were at work, in brick and steel buildings.
The funnel was visible and many in cars fled its path. The same
tornado at 3AM would have killed hundreds more than the eleven
lives tragically lost.
Humanity did itself
proud. People came from everywhere, immediately, volunteers in
droves, to do what they could and learn skills they didn’t know
they had. When FEMA advised a two-day course to qualify
volunteers, they simply went around and after bending a blade or
two learnt not to saw a fallen tree from the underside. The Red
Cross was in evidence everywhere and served more sandwiches and
coffee than could be consumed.
The firemen, police,
highway departments, and workers for all utilities – electrical,
telephone, gas, water – worked long and unselfishly to restore
vital services. We should be grateful each morning for those who
each day make possible light, heat, safety and hot water.
excellent. Each time I had to show my identification to a
courteous policeman in order to get into my own or into a friend’s
neighborhood I was grateful that looting was so effectively
warning services – the Weather Service, TV, radio, all worked well
to warn all who would hear as to where and when.
The fly-over focus on
its path and the close-up shots may have left an undeserved
impression of its generality. All who have returned from viewing the
area of the Katrina hurricane have agreed – it is even worse than
pictured. A battering by gale winds followed by flooding is a
disaster affecting all in an area. This was more like a sharp knife,
slicing a scar a hundred yards wide for ten miles, jumping areas in
its path, grinding others to the ground. Here is a bare foundation
where once a house stood while across the street a neighbor’s home
stands with not a shingle out of place. To say thanks that I was
spared by God’s mercy implies an unwelcome corollary - that the
finger of God reached down and struck my neighbor. Surely not.
Still, there is
terrifying symmetry about a twister. Our farm workers watched two of
them, weirdly luminescent, in a sinuous dance, now lifting, now
joining together, dropping to grind down the business and people at
the intersection of 109 and the bypass. Nothing beautiful left down
there. Lee Electric, with its twisted steel frame, shards of glass
and fresh memories of violent death reminded me of nothing so much
as it did the ruins of the building I saw at ground zero in
On the Internet last
month I saw an artist’s paintings of homes destroyed by Katrina.
This may be a form of reporting, but, to me, not art. Art is about
beauty and is done out of love for the subject. A tornado is
natural, but not beautiful.
Modern medicine and
technology makes it possible for us to forget those faces of nature
we’d rather ignore, which are not lovely – disease, pests, and
decay. But we cannot ignore an earthquake, fire, flood or tornado.
We can only cringe before its power and seek shelter.
An event of this
magnitude restores our perspective. The proper response of the
artist is not to reach for his brush and palette but for his work
gloves and chainsaw.