THAT (that) wrote,

Hey, Kids, Let's Learn About Nature!

So I was supposed to be working at the Iowa Braille School this week but we had some weather.  the fact that you probably didn't hear about it unless you know someone who was affected tells me that a weather event has to be pretty bad-ass before it hits the national news.

The title of this one-week camp for blind kids was It's My Nature. The idea was to expose them to nature in ways their visual impairments cause them to miss out on.  We planned hikes, trips to a farm and a greenhouse, fun stuff like that. Where I came in was with my recording skills.  I was going to make high quality recordings of the sounds of nature and send the kids home with CD's full of audio memories.

Sunday afternoon we had some get-to-know-each-other activities, told the kids about the upcoming week, turned them over to the dorm staff, and left for the evening.  Back at my hotel I unpacked, set up the audio editing gear I would be using, and got to bed nice and early so I'd be ready for Monday morning.

I know that I awoke at exactly 4:52 a.m.,  because my eyes instantly opened wide.  When you hear that tell-tale freight-train sound, it sets off an alarm in the body. I slid right out of bed, grabbed the rat cage and scuttled into the bathroom, where I scrunched up under the counter.   It seemed like the safest place.

The power went out. I thought about getting the mattress off the bed for more protection, but I wasn't sure if it would fit through the bathroom door.  And I didn't really want to go out into the room;  I expected the windows to shatter or a 2X4 to come poleaxing through the wall at any moment.   

I thought it was a tornado and would be over in a few minutes, but it just kept coming. I'm not sure how long I stayed in the bathroom, maybe a half hour?   When at last it seemed to be dying down a bit, I found my little handheld recorder, went to the window and recorded the sound for a few minutes.  (I found later that it didn't come out well.  You hear the rain battering the window but the ominous low rumble of the wind outside doesn't come through.)

I went out into the hallway bu there was no-one there. It was dark and quiet, with some kind of reserve-powered emergency lights glowing faintly in the ceiling, calling to mind a crippled 747.  There was nothing to do.  I went back in and crawled in bed. My cell phone was my alarm clock so I knew I would wake up.

Later, it seemed odd to me that I just went back to sleep, but I was focused on getting a good night's sleep for work the next morning.  And I wasn't thinking very clearly.  Huddling in the dark in a state of  tense anticipation is pretty exhausting.    When I look back on it now, I think that I crawled into bed in search of the familiar, like a child snuggling up under the covers, trying to block out the sound of his parents fighting.  If I can just get o to sleep, when I wake up, everything will be normal.  What I wish I had done was throw on my clothes and go across the street to the school to see if the kids were okay.

The next morning the power was still out but there was enough hot water left for a shower. I opened the curtains and looked out across the parking lot. The view was mostly cornfields and I didn't see anything unusual. I got dressed and went outside.

The air was crisp and cool. The first damage I saw was the shredded remains of the structure around the hotel's dumpster. Then I saw that, around the back of the hotel, the siding had been ripped off and the beams and insulation were exposed.

I got into my (state-issued) car and pulled out onto the little highway that runs along the western edge of town.   My hotel was on the edge of town, flanked mostly by farmland.  The Braille School is just across the road, in the town proper.  As I pulled onto the highway, I began to get a sense of the damage. Downed elephone and power lines lay across my way.

The highway. My hotel is upper right.

Just down the road from my hotel

I entered Vinton, a lovely town where charming old houses nestle amidst huge trees. Most of those trees were now horizontal.  Huge, ancient oaks had been snapped like pencils or pulled from the earth like weeds. Power and phone lines were draped alarmingly across the roadway, which was almost impassable with arboreal debris.  A travel trailer lay on its side in a driveway. 

Man, that's gotta hurt.


These unlucky Iowans have their work cut out for them.

The street in front of the Braille School.

The front lawn and Old Main building of the Braille School.

Damage to the roof of the Braille School.

That copper came from the roof of the Braille School.


Goodbye, grand old trees.

One of the most interesting things about a disaster is watching how people, including one's self, react. I could see myself sort of waking up to the flux of the situation, piecing things together, letting go of the idea that the day would be in any way normal. Looking back, I wasn't real quick on the uptake.

When I got to the second floor dorms, there was no-one there. I walked over to the girls's wing.  A window had blown out; shards of glass and puddles of water violated what should have been the homey safety of the day room.  Where could they be? Think for a second... they would have gone to the basement during the storm. Geez, I should have come over last night to see if the night staff needed any help.  

Descending the stairs, I heard voices coming from the cafeteria. The AmeriCorps kids who share the building with us were there, but there was no sign of the Braille School staff or students.  I asked around whether anyone had seen the blind kids. Someone said they thought they had gone over to the recreation building.  I took the school's famous tunnels over to the south side of campus.  

And there they were, killing time, drinking little juice pouches, being kids.  Staff trickled in.  The power never came on.   We spent the day playing games, jumping on the trampoline. waiting for the administrators to tell us everyone could go home. The building was too damaged to stay in and the power might not come back on for days.  The kids were remarkably adaptable.  I think the fact the staff remained calm amid the uncertainty made them feel safe.  Once the scale of the event had finally sunk into my thick brain, I did a good job of helping the kids make the most of the day.

I guess you could say our unit on nature wasn't a total loss because we took the kids out and showed them the destruction. We talked about winds and the roots of trees. It was actually kind of a fun day.   By the afternoon, though, it was getting pretty muggy and everyone was relieved when it was time to load up the vans and go home.

Showing some blind kids an uprooted tree.

Showing some blind kids the roof of the swing they used to swing on.

I went back to the hotel, packed, and drove back to Dubuque. Four days' pay down the drain and a strange end to my career as a teacher at the institution.  Even though I've been through a couple of Texas hurricanes, I have a new respect for wind.  You won't find me stormchasing any time soon.

NOTE: Turns out it wasn't a tornado, but something called a derecho, a storm with very strong, straight winds. In Vinton they topped out around 130 mph, which is comparable to an EF2 tornado.

Winds of 100+ MPH Tear Through Eastern Iowa

Radar image and a bit about derechos.

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