My family and friends are all safe and sound here in Madison. There were scary moments and strange things that fell from the sky, but nothing to compare to the experiences of those a few towns over in Chelsea and Henrysville and Paynesville and Marysville and Nabb and Pekin. These are places that might not even show up on Google Maps if you look for them, but they’re communities all the same. And though I don’t know any of the people who were killed, in places like this you feel the ripples of deaths like these. Even people you may have never met don’t really seem that far away.
Of course, when something like this happens, communities rally. Local organizations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army have been overwhelmed with donations and offers of help. And then people just show up to help, as you can see in this video from Chelsea.
Chelsea is a place I drive by on my way to Louisville. It’s within the school district where many of my friends send their children. It’s a tiny, tiny little blink along State Road 62 between Madison and Louisville. It’s one of millions of tiny, tiny little blinks of towns scattered across the country. They are all places with their own histories and their own stories, but no one seems much interested in them until something disastrous happens. From the perspective of those who make the news, they sometimes seem to be a series of interchangeable blips. [INSERT NAME OF TINY GODFORSAKEN TOWN HERE]. You might think, and I confess that at times I have allowed myself to become convinced, that real life does not happen in these places. Real life takes place in cities or suburbs. Real life takes place on the coasts. And in fact, every time a tornado wipes out an entire town in the middle of nowhere, it may as well be the same small town over and over again. But they are not the same.
This is what strikes you when that small town is suddenly the one right down the road. Or your own town. What strikes you is that the headline should not read, “Town Wiped Out By Tornado.” It should read, “Chelsea Wiped Out By Tornado.” If we are only going to make the headlines when horrible things happen, have the decency to at least be specific about it.
Last year when I was on sabbatical, I collected a few oral histories from folks around the area. But you don’t have to collect oral histories to know that every community is full of stories, and not all of them are about tornadoes. For many folks, the tornadoes this weekend are the story. For me, it’s the stories that have been lost in these communities through the lives of the people who would have told them. But these deaths and the destruction are not enough to destroy these other stories; they will go on even regardless of whether anyone else finds them particularly interesting or worthwhile. Real life is like that.
You can read a little about the stories of three those who died in Chelsea, here.