Ironic to hold an event to raise money for disaster relief only to have the most epic outbreak of devastating tornados rip through downtown Raleigh, knocking over trees & power lines, demolishing entire buildings, throwing debris miles away, and cutting out electricity to thousands (including the venue we held the event), just an hour before the fundraiser was to begin.
Whenever I’m worried or scared, I always ask myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and I usually realize that it’s not that bad after all. “Everything will be fine.”
But what happens when the unthinkable happens? When something happens that really is worse than the worst that you could have imagined? What do you do when the one thing happens that you could never have prepared for, happens?
I had been planning a fundraiser PechaKucha Night event in downtown Raleigh for Japan in response to the natural disasters there for the past few weeks.
On April 16th, 2011 over 100 cities around the world held fundraising events with the mission to “Inspire Japan” to rebuild. Collectively we were all supposed to give hope and our support to those trying to get through the tragedy.
Saturday, April 16th, 2011
The morning of the 16th I woke up with a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I spent the morning making last-minute preparations and reviewing the checklist. Guestlist, check. Food platters, check. Extension cords & lights, check. I actually spent more time worrying about getting to a presentation on time at 3pm that I was giving to a group of local artists than worrying about how the weather might affect the fundraiser turnout. The sky undeniably looked like it was going to break loose any minute and the weather service predicted severe thunderstorms in Raleigh between 4 – 6pm. I naturally expected a slight drop in attendance if not just for the fact that people don’t like going out in the rain, but I still hoped for the best.
On the drive to Peace College in downtown Raleigh around 2:30pm the weather service announced a tornado warning one county over; far enough away that I wasn’t concerned. In all of my 25 years I’d never known a tornado to touch down I the more populated areas of the Triangle. I naively thought tornados were reserved for anywhere but here.
I gave a quick presentation at 3:00pm as expected and by the time I left Peace College at 3:45pm to drive just a few blocks south to set up for the PKN fundraiser the sky opened up in full swing: heavy rain, lightning, and some strong gusts. Typical thunderstorm weather, right? For a brief moment I glanced up into the sky and noticed some type of debris floating above, then kept moving to get out of the rain. I’m not sure why I didn’t think more of it at the time…
Luckily I made it into the Alexander Square parking deck just in time. As soon as I shut off the car and started unpacking, the power to the entire deck shut off like in a horror movie and the emergency lights came on. Fire truck sirens started screaming and never seemed to stop. Seconds later the weather got suddenly worse—hurricane force winds, heavy sideways rain, hissing noises, lightning. I had no warning and just stood in the parking deck for a while wondering what was going on and if I needed to take more cover. I didn’t hear any tornado warnings on the radio, but friends in the parking deck were getting multiple phone calls and texts from parents and friends saying that the local news station WRAL said, “STAY OUT OF DOWNTOWN RALEIGH. IF YOU’RE THERE NOW, TAKE COVER.” Cellular connectivity was terrible, but I finally saw on my weather app that there was now a tornado warning in Wake county due to a tornado that touched down a few miles southwest of where I was—and it was heading northeast.
At this point I naturally began to panic. Is a tornado heading this way? Do I need to take cover? Am I in the tornado already or is the worse still to come?
This is what we experienced:
All I could do was wait it out. When we finally saw a break in the rain & wind I ran across the street to Isaac Hunter’s Oak City Tavern where we held the fundraiser. The good news: the bartender was there and let us inside. The bad news: no electricity here either.
It was nearly 4:30pm, only 1 hour before guests were expected to arrive by the time all of us at the bar got word that the tornado had ripped through downtown Raleigh a half hour earlier and danger had passed.
What now? Vegas, the bartender on duty, immediately called Zach Medford, owner of Isaac Hunter’s, to bring lots of candles and evaluate whether they would be able to keep the bar open at all without power. We were all out of any immediate danger, but what about the event? Is it still on? There’s no light to safely walk around. No electricity to plug in laptops, a microphone, to play music, or to take credit payments for drinks at the bar. We couldn’t connect to a single wireless network so we wouldn’t be able to live stream the event on Ustream as we had planned or even send a message to guests about the status of the event. We couldn’t even use our cell phones because the cellular networks were all bogged down from heavy usage. Not to mention reports of tons of street closures due to down trees and power lines and dead traffic signals at some of the busiest intersections.
The irony of the situation became apparent. Here I am trying to raise money for disaster relief and it’s threatened by a natural disaster itself.
I was not going to let nature bring us down again. Our purpose was to inspire hope and that’s what I still planned on doing. I didn’t know what would happen or how we would continue on, but I made an executive decision: it’s still on; this is going to happen with or without electricity or guests.
When Zach & Vegas asked us what we were going to do I didn’t hesitate, “We’re here. The food is here. The beer taps are working. I’m having a party whether anyone else shows up or not. Go ahead and start me off with the strongest beer you’ve got.”
That’s when I was able to get a handle on the situation and sent out my first tweets. First from my personal account:
I started getting multiple text messages, voicemails, emails, and twitter @ messages asking me if we were OK and if they should still come to Isaac Hunter’s or not. I needed a game plan fast. I sent the first message from the @pknraleigh twitter account around 5:00pm:
People actually started showing up. I had never been so happy to see their faces. I nearly cried. Sure, there was chaos. We had no idea how we would still give the 4 PKN talks without a projector, lights, or microphone. The guest list never emerged from my bag as I was thankful for every single person who walked through those doors. Food was hard to recognize in candlelight.
But people were there. We shared our experiences of the tornados and first-hand reports of the damage that I had yet to see. I was grateful that the tornado missed us, where half a mile south experienced complete devastation:
Update: The above video hit nearly half a million views so for some reason we can’t view it embed anymore. It’s on youtube here: http://youtu.be/ukuERsvfDMU
When it became clear the electricity wouldn’t be coming back on, Isaac Hunter’s told us they’d have to close up shop when the sun set. That gave us about an hour to figure out how to go on with the 4 PKN speakers that remained. The presentations were all on our laptops, so we just set up the slideshow on 2 different laptops and put one laptop on each side of the bar and told everyone to huddle around! The speakers stood in the middle reading from note cards by flashlight in their regular voices as there wasn’t any noise to compete with. The silence was inspiring. For once nothing was competing for their attention and everyone was engulfed in watching the presentations given in the back of a dark bar during the last 30 minutes of daylight.
And then, as chaotically as it began, we rummaged together our belongings, thanked Isaac Hunter’s for their generous support, and disappeared into our own disaster-stricken city.
The damage in Raleigh from a major EF3 tornado that traveled over 63 miles is no joke. A university is in shambles and canceled classes the rest of the semester. Children died. Hundreds lost or found damage to their homes. If you’d like to volunteer to help, complete this form from the City of Raleigh.
Despite the damage in our own home city, we came out relatively unscathed compared to Japan. More than 14,000 people lost their lives there. All the relief in the world still won’t be able to repair all the damage, but they need everyone’s help and now you know first-hand what it’s like to experience such a severe natural disaster so close to your own lives.
Please consider donating to Architecture for Humanity to help rebuild in Japan.