Thursday started off in a typical fashion. It actually was gearing up to be an exciting day in the Petersen household because we were set to get our counter tops and sinks installed! We'd been living in the house for a few days and had been washing our hands and our dishes in the bathtub since it was our only working faucet. Due to the counter top installation scheduled for 8am, Aaron worked from home and I gathered the kiddos to take them to school with me like a normal day.
At school, classes began as normal. My study hall students were a bit concerned with the weather and alerted me that there had been a tornado warning in northwest Alabama where my older brother lives. I checked on him and he was okay. Minimal damage to his area. I continued teaching my next class and we discovered that the county north of us was letting out at 11am. That current class that I was teaching was over at 11:28, and my next class was my planning period. I busied myself with some of my teacher duties that I take care of at the beginning of my planning period. I ate my lunch and did some lesson planning. At 12:18, my phone alerted me that there was a tornado warning in my county. I headed to the hallway and met other teachers and classes who were making their way to the center hallway.
We have four lunch periods. At 12:18, the second group of students is coming back and the third group is getting ready to go. This meant that as we sat in the hallway, half of our students were unfed. Other teachers who are parents of students at the elementary school chatted with me about how much we wish we were with our kiddos. One teacher was able to pull up the local news app on his phone and he kept us posted on the tornado whereabouts. We were told it was 40 miles away and moving at 65 miles per hour. Usually, these things pass us by. This time was different.
Our principal did an outstanding job of keeping us informed. We had 600 students crammed into our weather-safe center hallway facing the wall and silent as he spoke words of truth and told us he needed us to lock in and do what we've been trained to do. Every student was quiet and reserved as we realized the severity of what was upon us. Some teachers sat by students. Others offered pats on the backs and words of encouragement to ones who were crying. The teachers who were parents gave each other eye contact and concerned expressions. The teacher who had the weather app open told us it was heading our way. The hallway lights flickered and then went out. My mom was able to send a text saying she was safe (my parents and my grandma live between the elementary school and the high school). My son's third grade teacher sent a message to all of her students' parents saying they were fine and in their safe closet reading books and working on math facts. My older brother and his wife reached out to say they were praying for us. My brother offered godly words of encouragement because I told him how much I wished I was covering my own children with my arms. The tornado was heading on a path right towards our school and my new home where Aaron was. We got a few text messages sent to each other before nothing else went through.
Our cell phones dropped service and no calls came in or out. Text messages just spun in place. The lights came on then went back off. The principal told us to hang on and it would be over soon.
I could hear a distant roar we stayed silent for several minutes.
We were then told we had to stay in place until our superintendent could physically make it to our school. Ultimately, we sat in the hallway for a total of two hours. Students began receiving calls from parents to tell them that their homes were destroyed or that they couldn't access the roads to get home to find out. We stayed in the same class period we were in at the start of the warning. We had to make sure every student got fed. Towards the end of the school day, the principal informed the students who drive that they needed to exit the parking lot using a specific exit. This was because a pickup truck dropped off a family who needed medical care but wouldn't have been able to make it to the hospital in time. Our administration, school nurses, and security officials were in the parking lot treating these victims as school released.
I was able to contact Aaron and my parents. Everyone was safe. Aaron was without power and the roads to my house were impassable. The superintendent made a call-out to all families in the district to say that all school would be virtual on Friday.
Students who rode the buses went outside to wait for their bus. My mom raced to the elementary school as soon as the tornado warning was over so that she could get my kids because she knew the buses wouldn't be able to run unless the roads were clear enough. With Michael being a diabetic, we couldn't risk him being held up. It was such a relief to know my children were safe so that I could help out at school with whatever needs arose. I stayed around outside at the bus line with my department teachers. We monitored students until the administration team could make it to that section of the school and inform them that their buses were delayed due to not being able to access the roads. What started as 63 degree day dropped to a 50 degree afternoon after the storm. So not only were these kids without buses-- many were without sweaters. We shuffled these students into the lunchroom to await bus plans.
I stood outside the lunchroom and yelled out bus numbers of those buses that were able to make it through. The bus my kids would've been on was 40 minutes past its usual drop off time (and my high school is the first stop for that elementary bus). That's how long it took for the bus drivers to be informed if their roads for the route were passable.
Not long from then, a bus of only elementary riders showed up at my school. This was because their bus driver had attempted to take them home and they either didn't have a home to go to or the driver couldn't make it to their roads. At this point, I went inside the lunchroom to make sure those kiddos would be okay. Our principal grabbed snacks and water for them, and our special needs teacher rallied together some paper and crayons. Some high school students whose parents are high school teachers, were still at school and they sat around and entertained those elementary students.
Officials from our central office showed up and began taking names of all students inside our lunchroom. The transportation department head and the route official were also present and they worked out a plan to get most of the remaining high school students home on a bus. Our principal released any teacher who was left at school and we told him we'd be available for help if he needed. A few teachers stuck around just in case.
I made it to my mom's house at 5:00pm and knew the kids and I would be spending the night there.
Around 6:00pm, a teacher friend of mine called and asked if he could use my class DVD player for the kids who were left at school. Of course I said yes, and I told him where to find The Lorax DVD to use.
He told me later that all 25 of the elementary kids were picked up by 7:00.
I was able to go see Aaron and get extra clothes for me and the kids on Friday morning. My dad drove me because we still didn't know which roads were driveable. On this journey, we could see that the tornado passed right between my house and the high school.
Aaron was using a generator to keep our fridge cold since Michael's insulin was in there. He said he'd come to my parents house for a shower and dinner later that day.
Once Aaron arrived for dinner, we decided to head home for the night even without power. We knew it would be a struggle, but we also knew that the kids would sleep better in their own beds. As we made our way home on Friday night, we were treated to a surprise-- our power was back on! We knew to be very thankful that we had power and a home at all.
It took until today (Sunday) for internet to be restored. Aaron is impressed with how quickly it was restored. I was preparing myself mentally to do my doctorate work at my parents' house this week since my new class term starts tomorrow.
The damage in the area is extensive. It is at least an EF-3 that hit our area. Seven confirmed deaths and over 40 homes destroyed. Today I was informed that 5 of our high school students lost their homes, and several more elementary students lost theirs. Of the five high-schoolers, I currently teach 3 of them and taught a fourth in the fall of this year. This is real. It's devastation. The areas of most impact are roads I travel each day. The church that was damaged was a church I attended for several years. All of this is just so real.
Please keep our community in your prayers. Please pray for the families of the victims. Please lift up in prayer the families who've lost their homes and possessions. We know God can move here and we know He kept so many students safe by keeping them in school who otherwise might've been hurt if they were in their homes during the storm.
Sorry for such a heavy post. I needed to write it down while it was fresh on my mind. Tuesday we will head back to school and I will appreciate all prayers as teachers prepare to counsel students and be pillars for them to lean on.
Until Next Time,
Much Love, Reba