May 26, 2011

Does your life fit in a bag?

If you pack an emergency bag for a natural disaster - like a tornado - what exactly do you put in it? How do you prepare for your home and belongings to blow away? These are questions I had never asked myself until this week.

My weekend started with sunshine, a cool breeze and a 4-mile run with a friend. I ran through downtown Bentonville, through the Farmers Market, by what had to be a 75-year-old woman cruising happily on her bicycle, past houses with smiling people in rocking chairs who called out, "Good morning," and by the splash park, where kids were squealing as they ran through jets of water. It was a lovely, Mayberry kind of day.

Bentonville splash park
On Sunday, the weekend just got better. I made brunch and nailed my first ever attempt at a frittata. Then I spent the afternoon reading Runner's World and lounging lazily in the swing on the deck, admiring the flowers Trea had just planted. I couldn't wait to tell you all about my picture perfect weekend.

But while I lay in the sun, concerned only with tan lines, the city of Joplin, Missouri - only an hour north of my house - was being destroyed. I saw the news first on Twitter, but I didn't think it could be that bad. Then I turned on the TV. I live just an hour away, and our weather was the moment. Within a couple of hours, we had our own storm system approaching, and I spent the rest of the evening huddled with Trea and the dogs in our crawlspace under the house, as tornado warning after tornado warning got extended later into the night. (Thankfully, we live on a hillside, so our crawlspace has lights and room to stand up. It's not pretty, but it's not as terrible as it sounds.)
Later, as the country watched the horrific news coverage of Joplin, we started getting new warnings in northwest Arkansas about a particularly dangerous situation brewing for Tuesday. Our weathermen were predicting impending doom, and after Joplin, no one doubted them. Events all over town were canceled. People left work early to get home and hunker down before the storms hit. I even bought a weather radio, which I've never bothered with before. I also wanted to pack a bag to take with me to our safe place. But how do you pack one never come home?

I ran through all the possible scenarios: If our house was damaged by a tornado, we might have to leave and stay somewhere else until it's repaired. What would I need to take with me? Our house could be completely destroyed. What would I want to save? Or the worst thing I could imagine was our house being destroyed - while trapping us under the rubble. What would we need to survive? I looked at my bag, and then I looked at my home. I had no idea where to start. 

I packed a flashlight, batteries for the weather radio, an overnight bag with toothbrushes, vital medications and my glasses. I packed a multi-tool for working our way out of a jam, and work gloves to protect our hands if we had to move big sharp stuff out of the way. 
Survival kit

I packed a first aid kit, an umbrella, Pop Tarts and phone chargers. I also threw in our Garmins because, well, you know. I wore my running shoes and my wedding ring. Before the bad weather started, we took some blankets, jugs of water and dog food to our safe place, and planned to grab our emergency bag only if we had to actually take shelter. I also had the laptop and iPad ready to go so we could stream the weather coverage and watch from the crawlspace as long as battery life and electricity for WiFi held out.

I'll make a long story short and let you know we're OK. We had to take shelter for a short time during a tornado warning, but the storm weakened, and we were able to relax. But the conversations we had to have that day will always stick with me. 

Should we take our marriage license? It's in a fireproof safe, but that won't stop it from blowing away. But we decided, no, leave it. We're just as married whether a piece of paper survives or not. It's more important to pack life-saving supplies. Should we pack the letters we exchanged on our wedding day that we plan to read on our 25th anniversary? No. That's just paper. If we never get to read those letters, it won't change our commitment to each other. And I saw more clearly something I already knew: the most important things don't fit in bags, and you can't take them with you. The most important thing is our family. As long as Trea is safe, I don't need a bag of stuff. It's just stuff.

After we went to bed Tuesday night, the entire community of Denning, Arkansas, was destroyed by storms that had decided to leave our house alone. I don't understand tornadoes, and I don't know if anyone can ever truly be prepared for a disaster like Joplin or Tuscaloosa. I can't predict how I might respond if I had to endure that kind of destruction. But I've taken inventory, and I know what's important. And it will never fit in a bag.

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