On the third day, near midnight, exhausted, Corey Plunkett sat at his parents’ trailer and checked his e-mail. There was a new message.
“My name is charlie thompson,” it read. “My wife and I live in Hixson, TN. We found a pay stub in our front yard that the tornado carried in. . . . Is this you? Await response.”
Alone in the quiet, the tattooed, bearded 25-year-old cried, and then began typing.
In the days since one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history pulverized the South, one peculiarity has distinguished the event: not just the vast scale of destruction but also its randomness, the rearranged landscape it left behind.
As the tornadoes obliterated miles of forests and neighborhoods, they flung a truck onto a rooftop, a wedding veil into tree limbs, a lamp into a refrigerator. A million smaller fragments, the details of lives, were swept into the sky and carried perhaps hundreds of miles in different directions.
The pale-green paper from Corey Plunkett’s factory job was probably sucked into the half-mile-wide funnel that barreled along County Road 515. It somehow floated north, probably over Interstate 59, above blank billboards and cow pastures and rising ridges. It flew along the edges of Lookout Mountain. It must have crossed the Tennessee River, blowing past the modest skyline of downtown Chatanooga and on, fluttering above the thousands of neat brick and wood-sided ramblers tucked into the forested hills of suburban Hixson. Then it drifted down, and another process began.
Soon after the tornadoes, people in Rainsville went to church and began imparting meanings to the indifferent destruction of the wind, which killed at least 33 people around this rural northeastern corner of Alabama. An elderly couple. A man in a wheelchair. A family of four. A man who ran to the Huddle House to warn diners.
At Brown’s Chapel Baptist church, a preacher stood under a broad, broken oak and offered that God had not caused the tornadoes but was there to help people through the aftermath, and they all sang “Near the Cross.”
In the green field, Corey Plunkett and his wife continued to pick through debris, trying to make sense of things, starting with the idea of nothingness.
“First, it was like, I wanted to brush my teeth and I had no toothbrush,” Plunkett said, tossing a piece of siding off a heap. “I wanted to shower. No shower. Wanted to shave. No razor. Nothin’. You never feel so helpless in life as when you don’t have nothin’.”