On April 27th, 2011, my town of Ringgold, Georgia was destroyed by tornadoes. Ten years ago this week.
I was sixteen. Close friends had houses destroyed, and several classmates lost their lives. It’s hard to understand the kinds of tragedies that befall communities until they happen to yours, and even now I’m not sure I’ve fully processed it. My high school was heavily damaged. My old middle school was mostly destroyed. The very places where I spent most of my teenage years no longer existed at all. Even the local diner named Chow Time got wiped out.
Nobody was prepared for it because, well, we lived in the mountains. How did tornadoes even form here? The science is confusing but this was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. And yet, once-in-a-lifetime is not zero. Extreme weather happens. Whether or not this was related to climate change, I have no idea, but it’s not something we can avoid.
The Night of April 27th, 2011
This is just my own experiences. I can’t speak for the event as a whole.
My family came out safe, other than a week without power costing us most of our perishable food. My family’s terrible financial situation was just about to turn around, so the impact was minimal at best.
But it could have been so much worse. My Dad went out for cigarettes in the evening as the emergency sirens blared out on the TV and radio. My grandparents hustled us into the safe room in the basement, prepared to live off canned veggies and pumpkin flavored Pop-tarts until the National Guard buried us. I brought my Gameboy Advance SP inside, replaying Fire Emblem (2003) because I thought I’d be bored.
I guess I wasn’t as scared as I should have been. Despite Dade County being hit in the morning, I didn’t worry that much. Despite the tornado drill we had at school that day, despite being sent home early to stay safe. It was hard to reconcile that a disaster really could strike my life, like mine personally.
It didn’t help that my grandparents were huge worry-warts. They had sent us to the safe room for all sorts of weather events that never happened in the past. But as the night grew on and the tornado warnings grew more dire, it hit me that this was different.
My Dad wasn’t back yet. He had gone out in the middle of a storm, and he wasn’t back. I couldn’t play Fire Emblem anymore.
The radio blared about the tornado coming into my town. It was already here.
My Dad got back, looked at us in the safe room, and went straight to bed. He didn’t join us in here. Later he’d say it was one of the dumbest things he ever did, and I’d agree. I was so angry, and yet I didn’t actually force him out. He slept away while the tornado touched down.
In a “miracle,” nothing happened. The tornado turned the opposite way, and instead of hitting my neighborhood, it hit the downtown. Less people were hurt, I guess, that way. But it destroyed the town instead.
The tornado went over the ridge and into Tennessee. It came within a second’s turn of destroying my other grandparents’ house, or my aunt and uncle’s house, but both were spared. Another “miracle.”
Many people lost everything on April 27th, 2011, but my family ended up all right.
I felt guilty for feeling relieved. Still do.
We spent a week without power due mostly to bad luck.
Power in the city limits was completely out. But power outside the city limits was restored much faster… Which meant my next door neighbors, right past the city line, lived life fine just a day or two later. I sort of resented it. As far as I know, they never offered to help. Didn’t interact much at all. But then again, what could they have done?
The city was on lockdown anyway. My Mom was an essential worker, so she got past the National Guard, but the rest of us were stuck. But since my part of town was fine, it was like… an invisible disaster. A week spent where I couldn’t see the destruction, couldn’t understand the full scope of any of it. My whole town was destroyed, but I didn’t even know what it looked like. Just scattered phone calls when the signal got through, and the emergency radio broadcasts.
Just sitting there, bored in your house with nothing to do, is a normal teen activity. But it’s so much worse in a disaster like this. I felt powerless, like there were huge things going on and I wasn’t a part of any of it. I couldn’t help anyone, and I couldn’t even see what was going on.
One day, so filled with angst and anguish, I snuck out and went to the woods to try and pass the National Guard and see the damage. I couldn’t see much before a creek blocked my path, and I chickened out to go much further. But I saw visual proof that all this terror was real, and somehow it made it a bit better for me.
The power came back one random afternoon while I napped on the couch. I woke up to the local news and it took me a couple minutes to realize what had changed. The TV blared about the wedding of two British royals or some other irrelevant puff piece, and I felt positively jubilant for that single moment.
The lockdown was finally over, and now the rebuilding began.
It turned out that the disaster was much further than I had known; it wasn’t just my town, but many towns all over Georgia, Tennessee, and most notably Alabama. One of the biggest tornado outbreaks in the South ever. My town was one of the worst hit, but it was still worse elsewhere. Tuscaloosa got much more damage in a much more populated place, and that’s where most of the media focused. That’s where President Obama went.
Even then, there wasn’t much for me to do. I didn’t volunteer to help, not that I can remember. To this day, I have no idea why not. Maybe because I couldn’t drive? I don’t know, but it’s been a mystery to me ever since because, like, why? What was I doing? Maybe it’s stupid to feel guilty about something so long ago, in such a small way, but it’s stuck with me ever since then.
Most of the next weeks I spent online. No school and no responsibilities meant, for me, time to browse the internet. I was running that Project Café Facebook page, yeah, but the most important thing was Homestuck. In these weeks bored at home, unsure of what the future held, I dove deep into the Homestuck fandom and the MSPA Forums in particular. I made friends, speculated about fan theories, and joined along with the excitement for future updates. If I really liked Homestuck in April 2011, by May 2011 I lived and breathed Homestuck.
Out of sheer boredom, my Mom took my brother and me to see Thor at its midnight premiere. The movie was okay. We were practically the only ones there. Then out of sheer boredom, my friends and I went to see it at the drive-in later that day. That’s just the kind of thing we did in those days.
I think Osama bin Laden got killed around this time, which was pretty cool because it came out of nowhere and all the TVs in the house suddenly flipped to the President.
School reopened, but not at our school obviously. Everyone had to go to the county’s other high school, much further into the boonies and a 20+ minute drive. We traded alternating days with the actual students there. Nothing got graded, nothing got learned. There was no real reason to be at school except to help everyone process our grief together, and that was okay. It only lasted for two weeks before school ended, anyway.
I don’t really have a point to this post. No central thesis or big reflection on my life. No lessons to apply to COVID-19 or any other disaster. It’s just a recounting of what my life was like as a mostly powerless teen on April 27th, 2011.
Ringgold has recovered and grown quite a lot. The South has long since healed from the tornadoes of April 27th, 2011, in stark contrast to the issues still facing our counterpart disaster in Tohoku, Japan which happened one month prior. I’m glad for that recovery.
In the scope of all natural disasters in the 2010s, these tornadoes don’t rank that high in the U.S., let alone the world. Horrible hurricanes, furious fires, and polar vortexes top it many times over. But I’ll certainly never go a day without it affecting some tiny part of my brain, I think.
It took a lot of emotional work to dredge all this up from the back of my memories. For such an important life event, I guess I’ve compartmentalized a lot of it. But even though the trauma was all indirect, it’s still valid. Nobody ever deserves to go through any of that, and my entire town still did anyway. Hopefully it never will again.
For further reading, here is another 10th anniversary article from the Chattanooga Times Free Press. It’s an actual journalism piece, so it’s much more detailed than anything I’ve said here. I really recommend it.