Commentary by Bill Buchanan
“Oh my God, look at the size of that thing!” was the last thing I heard just before the tornado that hit Tuscaloosa, Ala. last week killed the power to my television set — the one on which we had been monitoring the storm. Ava saw the monstrous funnel cloud on a TV sky-camera as it approached town. Suddenly, the sky-cam went blank. Our electricity flickered and went out. Ava and I and our two dogs, and our friend Lisa and her dog waited anxiously in my candlelit basement, listening to a small battery-powered radio as the storm roared into town. At my house, you could not tell anything had happened. There was a little bit of rain and some wind gusts, which only knocked down a few twigs and leaves. But two miles down the road, the tornado was destroying everything in its path, forever changing the landscape and lives of everyone in Tuscaloosa. Images on the internet and television, while dramatic, do not really do justice to the degree of destruction. I saw only a small part of the devastation live, and it sickened me. I saw the area where a friend’s business had collapsed on top of him and two co-workers. Thankfully, all survived. I saw cars twisted into corkscrew shapes; large trees uprooted and snapped in two; and open spaces where industrial buildings had once stood. Entire neighborhoods were flattened. In some photos I cannot recognize the location of the shot because no landmarks were left standing. One report said that you could stand in the parking lot of University Mall and see all the way to the basketball arena. Here, that would be like standing outside the Skate Park with only rubble between you and the Ojai Valley Inn.As always, disasters bring out the best and worst in people. There have been disgusting stories of looting. My stance on this type of behavior is quite simple. Not only do I believe it should be within the law to shoot looters, but there should be special tax credits given to those who do.But those stories are far outdistanced by the heroic stories of those who serve the needs of others —- the people who rescue and treat the injured, who provide shelter to those who have lost their homes, and who feed the victims and the rescue personnel, including my wife and our friend who was with us in the basement. There are also stories of survival — like that of a friend’s nephew who got into a utility closet with his roommates, emerging unscathed from a house that was a total loss. Another friend was out driving in his truck at the time, which is about the worst place you can be. He saw the tornado, floored the vehicle, and raced for cover underneath an overpass. The storm roared past him, shaking his truck violently. He said he was certain he would be overturned and rolled, but the truck stayed upright and he survived. They say that God looks out after fools and small children — and he is no child. As in every epic tragedy, there are horror stories that are beyond comprehension. But there are also stories that touch your heart and offer some hope. A few days ago, our friend Lisa was driving around town with other volunteers, handing out water and boxed lunches to those in some of the most devastated areas. While she was out, she stopped by to check on a friend’s mother, who lives in one of the communities hardest hit by the storm. The mother, Peggy, is diabetic, and Lisa was aware that she was without electricity. Peggy was low on gasoline, which powered the generator that kept her life-saving insulin within the proper temperature range. Lisa had to wait for a few minutes as workers cut up and removed a large tree that had been felled by the storm and was blocking the entrance to the subdivision. When the barrier was cleared, a man who was waiting on the other side of the tree flagged her down. He said he had gas and a generator, and asked did she know anyone who could use them? Lisa gladly took the gas and went to her friend’s mother’s house where she used it to run the generator to preserve the insulin. Peggy’s generator had stopped running five minutes earlier. Lisa called that her “God moment.”The generosity from outside Tuscaloosa has been heartwarming. Massive amounts of water, food, clothing and other supplies have arrived in town, donated by those who want to help. All of this has caused me to ponder the question — are tragedies like this some type of mystical wake-up call —- something that challenges and/or shames you into being a better and more selfless person than you would be otherwise? Ava and I know several people who lost houses and businesses. There are still hundreds missing in Tuscaloosa, but as far as we know, there was no loss of life within our circle of friends and family. For that we are extremely thankful. We have also been touched by the outpouring of concern from friends here in Ojai. I have had numerous calls and e-mails from those concerned with our safety. I even had people come up to me in person at the Tennis Tournament this weekend to offer condolences about the damage, and let me know that they were thinking about us. That touches me more than you can know. Thank you all.