It’s impossible to imagine your world crumbling into a pile of rubble until, of course, it does. That was the case with Pat Stephens, a Birmingham, Alabama, attorney, who on April 27 found herself hovering in her bathtub as tree limbs and debris flew into her apartment as a devastating tornado made its way through the state. It’s also impossible to know how you’ll react, but Stephens has shown remarkable strength in response to an episode that would topple most people.
On that fateful day, Stephens was sitting in bed chatting on her cellphone with her sister. She knew that a tornado was coming, and even though there was a power outage where she lived, the tornado wasn’t expected to hit her neighborhood. Suddenly, there was a huge noise. Some have compared it to the sound of a freight train, but Stephens said it was like nothing she’s ever heard before.
She doesn’t remember saying to her sister, “It’s coming,” as she was later told, but does recall fleeing to her bathroom to seek shelter in the tub. As soon as she reached the door, glass and debris started flying everywhere. A fallen tree had shattered a bedroom window, leaving one of its limbs where she normally rested her head.
“How can I describe it? My heart was racing, my eyes were closed, and I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to live through this,’” Stephens recalls. “Even now as I talk about it my heart is racing, because when you think back on it, it’s like you were just all alone in the world with all of that stuff going on.”
When the initial crisis was over, Stephens went outside to discover that all 52 apartments in her complex had been destroyed. Neighbors had begun gravitating toward her building because that’s where the resident manager also lived.
“We looked across the parking lot and there were no more houses, just rubble and debris. Trees snapped as far as you could see. Cars were destroyed and I could see much more of the horizon than ever before,” Stephens said.
The resident manager directed them to join hands and pray, which they did, thanking God they were still alive. As the manager began surveying the area and looking for missing people, Stephens ran into her apartment, slipped her feet into her son’s tennis shoes and grabbed a camera to photograph the damage “because it was so unbelievable.”
Stephens recalls everyone milling around the parking lot looking at each other and wondering what would happen next.
“Nobody knew what to do. Will the Red Cross come to get us? Where do I go? What do I do?” everyone wondered, as the air filled with a strong odor of gas.
The first responders on the scene directed everyone to walk toward the main highway, a hazardous effort that forced them to pick their way through debris, fallen trees and potentially dangerous wires. As they did so, two family friends called to say they were on the highway, coming to get her. As she walked toward them, a man in a truck, who’d just lost everything himself, drove her to a truck stop where she met her friends.
Over the next several days, Stephens went about the task of rebuilding her life. Her old complex was condemned and she was able to recover just a few items of clothing. Last Thursday, she secured an apartment and this past Sunday she and her 22-year-old son, who thankfully had been visiting friends several miles away during the tornado, were able to spend the night in a place they could call home. Stephens also had renters’ insurance, so she’s not concerned about all she lost—yet.
“I know that eventually I’ll be looking for something and won’t find it, like pictures from years ago or earrings my mother may have given me. But I have health and strength and you can get things again,” she says. “My son was more upset about the things than I could ever be. At that age, it’s all you have and he hasn’t yet wrapped his mind around how replaceable things are.”
Still, if Stephens has learned anything, it’s that she will take every storm warning in the state seriously and plans to keep a battery-operated radio and an emergency bag of items she and her son might need.
“If I’d had a radio with batteries I would have been listening to the news and know the storm had shifted direction. And I’ll have a bag packed because you never know when you might have to walk out of the house with just the clothes on your back,” Stephens said.
The memory of all she endured stills haunt her a little, perhaps because it hasn’t really hit her yet.
“Yesterday I found myself during quiet moments as I moved from one location to another, drifting right back to the storm,” she said. “I don’t feel like I’ve had time to exhale because I had to start the process of getting reestablished. Maybe that exhale moment will come when I feel I’m fully on the road there.”