March 25, 2021

First pictures coming in of the south suburbs where tornados touched down a few hours ago

It’s tornado weather. The line of storms set to come over metro Birmingham today is significant enough that the National Weather Service put out a rare 5/5 warning for dangerous tornados in North/Central Alabama today. The first major storm hit my area about forty five minutes ago. Per usual, the central Jones valley in which downtown, UAB, and my neighborhood are located were fine. There are reports of a major tornado having blasted through the southern suburbs. No reports yet on damage/injuries but I can hear various emergency sirens as they head south down highway 280. And now we wait. UAB and the VA both shut down early so I’m doing the work I have left for the day from home, much to the confusion of the cats.

The weather has suspended the local vaccination sites, as they tend to operate out of doors. Supplies of vaccine have gotten better and better over the course of the last few weeks so they’ve been able to work at full capacity and the number of vaccinated continue to steadily rise. The total percentage remains lower than I would hope due to the difficulties of reaching some communities for political reasons, some for trust reasons, and some for access reasons. Alabama still hasn’t come up with a mechanism for vaccinating the elderly that cannot easily leave their homes. I know it’s a problem that’s being worked on and I hope there’s money in the recent stimulus bill that the state health deparment can use to get one of the larger home health agencies with state wide coverage to take the project on.

We hit 30 million confirmed cases today, not quite 10% of the pre-Covid US population. With 545,000 dead, our current mortality rate is about 1.8%. So, for every sixty people or so that are told today that they have the virus, one has been handed a death sentence. And it’s a different population than it was. After the huge push to get elders vaccinated, most of the deathly ill are between thirty and sixty and without a lot of health and functional problems. And that’s what’s going to continue to happen as long as there are significant portions of the population that refuse to protect themselves. If the disease were to remain in populations of wilful ignorance, that would be one thing. However, that’s not how viral infections work. It will keep circulating in susceptible populations, continuing to mutate into new strains and, if those new strains are not well covered by either vaccine or natural immunity, there will be new break outs in protected populations and there is no guarantee that one of those new strains won’t be significantly more lethal.

The rain and thunder are beginning outside again. I just hope that today is not as bad as April 27, 2011 when a huge outbreak of tornados locally swept through a number of local towns, most notably Tuscaloosa, and dozens were killed. Tommy and I were both home early that day due to weather and were in the basement watching a movie, just in case. We weren’t really paying attention to the weather news. We only realized how bad it was when our phones began ringing like crazy with people from out of state calling to check on us. We had no damage. We didn’t even lose power. But we found a number of pieces of debris on the top deck and the yard that had fallen from the sky. Pieces of shingles, a carpet tack strip, some random pieces of what looked like someone’s expense report.

You can prepare for pandemics. They are one of the most reliable and predictable forms of natural disaster, having occured every few generations since time immemorial. You can prepare for tornados by recognizing that they will come where certian climate conditions exist, but you can’t predict exactly where and when they will strike. City planners of the 18th and 19th centuries were pretty good at placing residential neighborhoods (especially those for the wealthy) in places relatively shielded from natural disaster. For instance, the two parts of New Orleans that didn’t flood during Katrina were the French Quarter and the Garden District. I’ve always liked living in older neighborhoods, designed around the pedestrian rather than the car. They’re walkable. Things are close in. And they are well protected. When Steve and I bought our house in Sacramento, we bought close to Sutter’s Fort, the one part of the central city that had never flooded. Sutter had had the good sense to ask the local natives that question before building. Here, tornadic activity always passes well north or well south of the central city where I have always lived.

19th century San Francisco

I read somewhere that one of the reasons that adults become so nostalgic for their college years is that is the only time in their adult lives that they live in close proximity with their neighbors in a walkable environment with lots of things to do nearby during plentiful leisure hours. Then they grow up, move to the suburbs where the combination of urban planning based around the automobile and the ideal of the detatched and the seperate single family home predominates. Cities were designed for millennia to conserve land and to have people live cheek by jowl. You became familiar with your neighbors lives. You were in and out of each others homes. You spent lots of time together in public space as you didn’t have as much private space. Rich and poor mingled and there was a social encouragement of empathy. Sounds a bit like a college campus.

Then came the most destructive invention of the 20th century, not the atomic bomb but the internal combustion engine. It allowed us to grow apart, to live lvies hidden from each other and the fabric of community and extended family frayed. We no longer saw the whole of the messy and complex lives of our friends and neighbors, but only the projections of what they wanted us to see, a carefully curated public face with no complication of the less than ideal family lives that might be going on behind the closed doors of suburbia. This trend has, of course, gotten a lot worse with social media. The end result has been a moving away from empathy and love the neighbor to climb the social ladder by monetizing thy neighbor which certainly explains a lot of what goes on with the prosperity gospel and conservative christian denominations.

I’ll stay out of the suburbs and exurbs for the richer tapestry of my quasi-urban small city life. I just have to remember that I still have to love my neighbor from a six foot distance for a while longer.

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