By MATT SEDENSKY
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Over there is the terrace where Eleanor Walker would feel the sun’s warmth on her face, through those picture windows where she’d admire oak and magnolia trees that had stood even longer than she. That room there is where the sound of gospel would waft upward, and just past it the chapel we’re she’d say a silent prayer. If she could walk the nursing home’s halls again, she wouldn’t find her magazines arranged just so at the bedside, the birdfeeders hung so carefully, the tiny gardens where the residents tended their tomatoes and peppers.
It is gone, all gone, swept up with the tornado’s force. At 90, Walker is starting over again.
The storms that ripped paths of loss through Alabama and half a dozen other states have wrought a special sort of pain on the oldest residents, forcing them to cope with the destruction of all they’ve known and to adjust to new realities when familiarity and routine have long been their most comforting friends. Resilience is notably mustered, but the worries that remain are profound.
“We don’t have the time to come back that a young person has,” said George Thomas, 71, a retired waste-water treatment plant supervisor, walking through the rubble of a Tuscaloosa neighborhood. “So it makes it hard on an older person.”
The death tally in the hundreds, the number of missing still frustratingly high to those searching, officials haven’t yet fully accounted for who has been killed or whether any demographics stand out. But the plight of the aged is clear in just a glimpse of the destruction.
Northeast of Birmingham, in Shoal Creek Valley, a small assisted-living home is flattened, all seven occupants killed, including a woman of 97 and its most senior resident. Here in Tuscaloosa, a brand-new senior housing complex is destroyed, two women and countless dreams dead in the wreckage. And in Pleasant Grove, in a scene repeated time and again, an elderly couple named Jimmy and Dot Dixon, are looking for a new home after the one they knew for half a century was ripped apart like junk mail.
“We did not dodge the bullet this time,” the 84-year-old man said in a phone message to his daughter after emerging from the ruins.
The lessons of the violent Southern tornadoes are not new. They have been painfully taught disaster after disaster, from St. Rita’s Nursing Home, drowned in Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters, to the swamped shoreline of Japan, where tsunami waves crashed ashore earlier this year. Disasters heighten the vulnerability of the oldest and weakest.
Some older victims of the storms say they feel forgotten. But many have noted age had nothing to do with who was affected.
“It doesn’t matter about the age,” said 77-year-old Andrew Poole, brushing the broken glass from his niece’s car. “It’s taken the young as well as the old.”
At any age, the experience is harrowing.
At Chastain Manor, the newly opened senior housing complex in Tuscaloosa, Elston Davis dove unto the bathroom floor when his bicycle crashed through his bedroom window. The wind spun him and dumped him, dazed and bleeding.
A career Navy seaman, he already was being treated for post-traumatic stress. Now, every time he shuts his eyes, the nightmares come. And when he opens them, a nightmarish reality.
“Got to start from scratch,” he said, picking through a mess that seems to extend as far as the horizon. “I don’t have anything.”
Just down the road, LaRocca Nursing Home’s bucolic hillside campus has been reduced to a sea of plaster and brick and glass. Inside, as the storm howled, four dozen residents massed in the hallways as trees crashed down and a cloud of dust rained upon them. They prayed aloud, they prayed together, they called the Lord’s name again and again.
And when it ended, it was gone; the half-century of work that had made LaRocca something other than an institution, the antiques and art that adorned its rooms, the fountains, the azalea bushes, the little bridge over the stream.
When the dust settled, though, the staff realized their drills had paid off and their prayers were answered. Not one patient was killed, the worst injury among them a bruise. And so, the staff got to work. They scrounged to find diapers and food and oxygen. They searched for medications in the glow of flashlights. And piling the residents into unfamiliar rooms, three or four beds apiece, they tried to make the oddity of it all seem normal.
“I’m going to bed in my clothes?!?” one woman exclaimed. “Oh yes, ma’am, it’s a party night!” they told her.
Cheryl Petrey, the home’s nursing director, who lunged to the hallway floor shielding two residents by her side, says those whose minds have been clouded by dementia have been strangely blessed.
“It is going to be hard on the ones that knew. I think they’re going to be just like me and think about it again every time they hear a jet,” she said. For those in a haze of old age, though, “they don’t know what happened; they just know they’re in a different place.”
Walker is one whose mind seems as clear as it ever was. She remembers the burst of glass and shock of seeing her beloved city flattened as she rode a yellow school bus to another nursing home. She sits this day just a few feet from Helen Wurm, a 98-year-old retired nurse who also has been displaced to another nursing home.
Wurm spoke softly and reflectively when asked last week about her experience, saying it has prompted her to think about the end of her own life. She said the storms had caused her to have nightmares. She said it was hard to see so many years disappear in an instant.
She died Monday of a heart attack. No one can say whether the storm had anything to do with it. In nearly a whisper, though, Wurm had said afterward that she yearned to go home, and that she had one simple prayer.
“That the place will be replaced,” Wurm says softly. “That it will be replaced.”
Matt Sedensky can be reached at http://twitter.com/sedensky