Some of you know where we live, but most of you probably don’t. You may have seen pictures of all the tornado damage in North Carolina, particularly in the Raleigh area, from this past Saturday. Well, that’s us, or at least just barely almost us. That tornado that carved a huge gash in our city passed within about 500 yards of our house.
Before I talk about anything else, let me say that we’re OK. By whatever freak variables and factors that go into how a tornado moves, the damage path appears to have sideswiped the edge of our subdivision and nothing more. Trees are down in a few places along the edge of our neighborhood, but amazingly, we were unscathed.
Not far down the road, it’s a much, much different story. Some of the worst damage from the storm occurred about a mile to a mile-and-a-half north of our house. The damage path traces the same road I drive the J-Man on to and from school.
The day after the storm, Mary and I drove toward the school to see what it looked like and to check on a friend of hers we hadn’t been able to reach by phone. At the mobile home park we pass each morning, most of the trailers were damaged or destroyed. The Buddhist temple nearby had trees down everywhere. Then we came around the corner just before you get to the school and saw nothing but carnage. Some houses had the siding peeled away like an orange all the way down to the plywood. Some of those had giant holes ripped in the sheathing like some monster had punched them.
The damage kept getting worse the more we looked. Some houses were sheared off at the roof line. Some houses were picked up and thrown 15 feet away from their foundations. Others looked like several feet of the house were just hacked off with an axe. Some were caved in. And there were some houses that were simply gone.
We saw sheet metal wrapped several times around telephone poles. We saw baseball cards and CDs jammed into the cracks of siding. There was even a CD embedded in a tree trunk. We saw pieces of several houses mingled together in the road like some terrible flotsam. It looked like something out of an apocalyptic movie.
And then there are the stories of parents who lost children in the storm. These are too painful to be discussed. We had our two scared kids crammed in with us in our small downstairs bathroom. And ever since, one thought has been running through my mind.
It could easily have been us.
Thankfully the TV meteorologists did a great job keeping us informed and prepared. We had about 15 minutes to get ready. We already had a decent idea in our minds what we wanted to do in case of such an emergency. Now we’ve had a real life run through it. We learned some things, and some of them are perhaps particular to helping your autistic child get through the crisis as best you can.
Start with the basic tips you can find in a variety of places. Here are some tornado and general storm safety preparedness guidelines (courtesy of my alma mater). Don’t wait until it happens in your neighborhood. Being prepared saved a lot of lives here.
Here are some additional things I thought of based on our recent experience. Some are general ideas while others are somewhat autism-specific.
- Determine your ‘safe place’ ahead of time. If you have a large family, you may need more than one. Ours is the small downstairs bathroom in our house. The backup is the tiny coat closet next to it. The smallest room you all can fit in that’s in the interior and lowest level of your dwelling (one with no windows and no load-bearing walls) is going to give you the best chance of survival.
- Create a checklist of essentials you need in your safe place and have it ready long before you need to use it. Try this out ahead of time to make sure your supplies and your family will fit in that room. Some things we thought important: pillows and blankets (protects against debris and stuff falling on you), socks and shoes (walking on glass and debris will be bad), diapers and wipes, raincoats, radio with fresh batteries, flashlights (LED ones are great because they will run forever – having at least one lantern-sized light source will make a huge difference particularly if your child is scared of the dark), cell phones, friends’ phone numbers, wallets and keys, your ID and your child’s medical alert bracelet if you have one, medications for everybody, food – especially snacks for the kids – water or favored drink, a pair of work gloves (will make it easier to dig out if you need to), and plastic grocery bags. Throw as much of this as you can into backpacks or duffle bags as it’ll make it easier to keep track off and carry if you need to.
- Make sure your autistic child’s favored toys or books are in there, obviously the smaller the better. Things of high distraction value are especially good. The iPod helped distract the J-Man who was getting more and more frantic.
- In some places, you can subscribe to a service that will call you if warnings are issued and your address is in the warning area. We pay $8 a year for this and it paid for itself a hundred times over last weekend. This can be more effective than a weather radio since the service will only call you if your address is located in the warning area.
- Mobile devices with 3G are very useful as we found those still worked throughout, albeit slowly. We could still get radar updates and additional info even though power was out for miles around.
- Make sure you cover anything in your safe place that could injure your child if he or she panics. We realized while we were in the bathroom that the protruding toilet paper holder was a potential hazard. The edge of the sink was too. If your child tends toward self-injurious behaviors or simply a lot of frantic movement when panicked, you’ll need to be careful in a confined space.
- Disable the door knob, lock it, stand in front of it, guard it with your life. The last thing you want is your child getting out of your safe place. We put the child safety knob cover on the inside of the door, which mostly thwarted the kids trying to escape. You might need to resort to something more drastic like a latch or a bolt-type lock.
- Put your valuable papers, your child’s medical records, and stuff you absolutely need to preserve into a heavy fire safe and etch your name and address into the outside of it. There’s a good chance a locked fire safe will survive a storm, and having your contact info will help it get back to you. Obviously do this well in advance.
- Ideally, store your essential electronic files far away from your house. We’ve accumulated tons of paperwork for the J-Man, which we’ve scanned and stored on an online backup service. I’ve also backed it up to an external hard drive, which a family member in a different city keeps for me. Losing all that would be disastrous.
If you do suffer damage to your house, obviously the orderliness of your child’s life will be in complete upheaval, whether your child is autistic or neurotypical. I wouldn’t even begin to know how best to deal with this. Our school system published a useful resource about helping primarily neurotypical kids deal with the aftermath of a tornado. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network also has great information.
Not being directly impacted by the tornado but being witness to a lot of things since has allowed me some opportunities to learn some important lessons.
Our school has been one of the community focal points for gathering disaster relief supplies and distributing them to families in need. This week we went through the kids’ old clothes, which got me thinking about all sorts of things. I thought about our two wonderful boys and that we’ve decided to not have any more kids. I’m very sentimental, and so many of their clothes have so many memories or me. I hate boxing up clothes when they outgrow them. It’s pure grief really. Long ago I wrote about how our J-Man growing up and boxing up the things he’d outgrown was hard for me to deal with. Packing up their old toys is at least as hard for me if not worse. We saved a lot of the J-Man’s clothes for Dale Jr. Now we’re saving them either to remember or to donate. And there’s so much need around us right now.
Sorting through these clothes was just one tearful feeling after another for me. I saw the sleeper the J-Man wore to feeding therapy all those months, how it was covered in every type of puree ever invented, and that it was bleached so much it should just unravel itself. I picked out a few more clothes – many being sleepers for some reason – some clothes they had pictures taken in, and a few that I just remember. I tried to keep that pile small. The need is so great. I put the rest in the donation boxes and left the room. I couldn’t do anymore. I felt no small amount of shame about this. I’m grieving my kids growing up while others’ lives have been largely reduced to rubble.
Life seems very intense right now, at least to me. I think that’s what makes me react like this. I’ve been on some raw, emotional edge for a while now. I’ve been incredibly tired these last few weeks, and my coping skills are rather shaky right now. In reality, our daily lives aren’t that much more or less chaotic than they usually are, and certainly infinitely less so than all those affected by the storm. Breaks from school are exhausting as structure spirals and decays to near zero. We’re nearing the end of his 26-day break from school. The emotional stresses of the year have frayed me more than I realized. I vowed to not let myself get burned out again, and I’m not doing a very good job of it.
Some of the worst damage in our city is right across the street from the school. I see that and realize just how close our lives were to crashing down. I hear all the stories of those whose lives were turned upside down by the tornado, and I can’t even begin to imagine our family in that awful story. Some of those affected by the tornado have children around the same ages as ours. They lost so much from their very home to all the precious, irreplaceable things I value so much in our lives. And too awful for words, some families lost their children. There just are no words for that.
I’ve also seen so many acts of kindness this week, far too numerous to describe. People from near and far are generously helping people in need they’ve never met. Relief supplies are showing up from all over the place. You can see damaged and destroyed houses, blue tarps covering the gaping wounds in people’s homes, and endless downed trees from the sidewalk in front of the school gym.
I was over there this morning to drop off some more supplies. I helped unload some things that had come in while I was there. I looked across to all the devastation and around me at all the symbols of generosity and kindness, and I thought, there is goodness all over the place every day if I just decide to look for it. I don’t know why bad things happen, and I don’t know why some people do hurtful things to others, our kids, or to anyone for that matter. But I know our collective capacity for goodness is greater than anything else. It is what we are made for. And knowing that we are able to live that out gives me great hope.