The Scent of a Tornado
Every tornado, there’s always the scent of pine in the air.
The winds calm. The clouds stop pelting down rain. The air cools, suddenly. That’s when the unexpected perfume of freshly snapped trees lifts from the debris path.
Every storm I’ve covered - and there have been more than just a few - I smell it.
The pine scent always reminds of the first major tornado I ever covered. It was the same tornado that destroyed my parents' home.
On Good Friday 2009 we were in New Orleans when cell phone alerts began buzzing with warnings.
“I’m sure it’s fine, just something on the radar – nothing on the ground.”
That was our hope while ordering beignets at Café du Monde. By the time our plates were empty and our fingers sticky with powder sugar, the call came from the home alarm system: the back door sensor had been triggered.
“Probably just the dog scratching on the door afraid of thunder.”
That’s how it began… the denial. Turns out an EF3 tornado crashed through that door.
The next call came from a friend who saw the half mile wide funnel cross Lake Guntersville and make a direct hit with our home.
“It’s gone. It’s just gone,” she said.
We didn't even stay one night in Hotel Monteleone, but we used the room. My father paced and paced, making phone calls. We wanted more info but all the roads to our house were covered in trees. No one could check on things.
I remember my mother crying in the hotel room chair, desperately seeking answers from hundreds of miles away about how her dogs fared.
“Animals have a sense of where to hide.” That wasn't denial. It was hope.
I downed coffee to fuel the overnight drive back and asked my closest friends to meet me at the house to video tape our return. I was already plotting the news story. Planning my coverage was my version of pacing, and the only way I knew to deal.
We pulled up to our broken home after sunrise. Our house was destroyed, but at the time we all told ourselves it was repairable (the bargaining). After all on the outside the walls were still standing. Inside was much different.
Meanwhile I told my friend to keep rolling video if one of us started crying. This wasn’t staging the shot or faking emotion. This was knowing what was bottled up inside and knowing what moments make a story… and, again, my version of pacing. If I approached this disaster as a news story, I could distract myself.
Over the next few months while my parents rebuilt, I obsessively crafted that story - the personal experience of what it’s like to be hit by a major storm. I tracked down cell video, pics of the funnel, James Spann walked the debris path with me.
My one regret? That I wasn’t there when it hit. I wished I could time travel to put a GoPro in just the right safe spot during impact. It wasn’t a normal way of dealing with the loss of my childhood home, but it’s how I managed.
The story aired during sweeps. The finished product was intended to be a letter of hope to anyone who has or would go through a similar natural disaster. I still talk about the experience on air from time to time.
And every time I smell that scent of pine when I am out telling someone else’s story of damage, debris and the unexpected I remember what it’s like to be on the other side of the story. If everyone is OK, as we were, I tell them I went through it too and I know it’s overwhelming.
A few years later my wish to time travel to the storm came true, sortof. On April 27, 2011 I was vacationing in my parents’ newly rebuilt home when (wait for it)… it was hit again!
This time I shot cell video of the dark, murky funnel before ducking in to our safe room to take cover. That storm did only minor damage to their home, nothing like the EF5 level devastation that came later that same day during several monster storms that exploded across the Southeast.
I spent the next few days covering those horrific stories, seeing firsthand just how fortunate we were to all be unhurt, even the dogs… canine survivors of two tornadoes, unscratched.
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Jeremy Campbell is an ATLien, storyteller, traveler... & often all three at once.