05-11-11-sharon-valentine.jpgIt’s not over yet! The tornadoes — those twisting serpents of destruction that have left those of us with personal experience our own version of post-traumatic stress syndrome. After a forest fire on the farm last month and a tornado through the neighborhood two weeks ago I was joking that if I got anywhere near water, start evacuating. But after calling a friend with a daughter at the University of Alabama on Wednesday night and watching the skies over the farm while the weather channel was squawking tornado warnings, I came back to Fayetteville last Thursday and had a total “meltdown”.

Something suddenly snapped as stress chemicals poured into my bloodstream that, as the doctor later explained, mimicked a small stroke —speech impairment, disorientation, light headedness — a roller-coaster ride of fluctuating blood pressure and constricting veins. It was a physical experience that gave me some insight to “survivor wisdom.”

The first major realization is that no matter how early the warning and how quickly we move to a “safe place” some of these storms are not survivable. Whether the cause for climate change is global warming, solar flares or the position of our solar system as it rotates through the universe it is all speculation.

Will an extremely hot summer speed up the melting of the northern permafrost and cause a huge release of methane into the atmosphere? Will the warmer than usual waters result in a more benign hurricane season? Is it too late to mitigate any of the human impact on the vulnerable environment (i.e. oil spills, radiation leaks, etc.)? The hard truth is that no matter what the forecast trends, the human body is too fragile to withstand raging natural forces.

But there is a second lesson from survivorship. For those of us that were literally trapped in our neighborhoods after the tornado — trees and debris making streets inaccessible, the subdivisions rendered incommunicado and no way to get to the outside world it, was the small basics that became tools of sustainability for a few days:

• A landline phone on which we could call out even if we could not receive calls coming in.

• Battery-operated radios

• Car gas tanks filled earlier in the day that could provide charges for cell phones and radios.

• Water bottles filled earlier in the day and frozen for ice and insulation.

Rescue teams and emergency services were coming but Saturday night there was no way to talk with them. We had no idea there had been a press conference, where to go or even the track of the tornado until my insurance agent called my cell very late that night to give me reports off her laptop and an offer to try to get in, if needed, to get me out.

On Sunday, families who elected not to evacuate scrambled for information. You all know the heartening stories of volunteers and long hours by emergency services as they set up staging areas and searched for the injured. A few that will always come to mind for me are:

• Jim Cook of WFNC broadcasting Sunday afternoon to help with emergency information and then working after 10 p.m. to be ready to go on the air Monday at 6 a.m. with more updates.

• Robert Jenkins of Home Depot sending generators to the emergency areas to charge cell phone and laptops — and garbage bags.

• The mayor’s administrative assistant, Brenda, staying on the line to be sure we reached the right department offi cial to handle requests from inside the “zone.”

• City inspections offi cer Doug Naylor, who immediately moved city permit stations to the “check points,” and sped up procedures for contractors rushing to answer calls for assistance.

The Fayetteville Observer being delivered to aide stations with news and phone numbers.

• Military personnel, church groups, Samaritan’s Purse armed with tarps and chainsaws to help elderly and young families remove the trees from the houses — and piling debris neatly at the curb.

It was an “in your face” lesson on how we assume our modern technology “links” us and how flexible we must be when there is no TV news, no radio programs to broadcast local programming and no way to charge cell phones or get calls through in emergency situations.

It was people walking down the streets carrying ice, gas cans and “what have you heard?” bulletins that brought in the news.

As the curfews began to be lifted, the green permits left in the house and the damage diminish (at least visibly) — as life begins to resume some of its normal rhythm that I have one last survivor lesson — especially as I acknowledge my own vulnerability:

In times of danger and insecurity, your greatest safety is with your neighbors — the family or people next door. Get to know them. Speak to them. Care for them. They are the source of strength that as you step outside into a new and devastated landscape come up to give you a hug of reassurance.

Photo: Soldiers from the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School volunteered their time in a Fayetteville community to help clean up in the aftermath of the tornado. These soldiers were just a few of the many people in the community and around the state that reach out to help. U.S. Army Photo by SSG Russell Klika.

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