We Were Kissed and not Sucker Punched

Now that we have wifi and U-verse back, and our lives have returned somewhat to normal, I can catch up with writing a blog entry on what happened to us during the Alabama storms. We were hit by an EF2 that came through early Wednesday morning on April 27, not the far worse storms later that evening which skirted both north and south of us. Despite the jaw-dropping damage, we had no injuries and no fatalities, unlike so many others in Alabama.

Around 5:30 am we heard tornado sirens. I actually hadn't slept too well so I was already up, and the sirens had been off for 20 minutes when Frank comes whizzing by with an iPad showing the weather radar, saying "let's get down to the basement, I don't like the way this looks".

As we're at the top of the stairs heading to the basement, we hear the sound of glass shattering, and then we were in the basement. No time to grab the cats, we figured they were under our bed.

He did a brief check upstairs at one point, and said there was a tree through our dining room window and a new skylight.

Afterwards Frank looked out of the utility window and said: "I think we were just insanely lucky!" I said what do you mean, it didn't seem that bad, we lost a dining room window, big deal. He said: look out the window. So I did and realized the quarter acre of forest next to our house was completely decimated, entire pine trees uprooted or snapped like they were toothpicks. We never heard a thing, just glass shattering - probably because our house is below street level. My neighbor next to us confirmed the same thing, she never heard anything. Our neighbors across the street who are above street level heard the freight train. One neighbor's garage door bulged Out because the winds tried to suck the doors out. Our neighbor in back of us one street down also heard the freight train. This is a view from our kitchen window immediately after the storm.

When we first came back up the stairs to assess the damage, the smell of fresh pine was overwhelming. Frank said: pine? Pine?! We don't have a pine tree. I thought, what are you talking about, we have an evergreen on that corner of the house. But he said no, we don't have this kind of pine tree, whose pine tree is this?! We had to open the front door and walk around to find the answer - it was the top half of the neighbor's pine tree from Across the street and diagonal to our house, which had snapped off and javelined upside down into our house. And this was the sight that greeted us on the outside. We would later learn the top of the pine tree was driven about 2 1/2 feet into the ground.

By now people were coming out of their houses. We knew our immediate neighbors but that was pretty much it; many of us were introducing ourselves to each other for the first time.

I saw a huge tree down blocking our street. And another, and another, and the enormity of what happened finally began to sink in. People started bringing out their chainsaws. We jumped in dragging branches (and I quickly learned - stay away from the guy with the chainsaw when there is a chance a large branch might fall or snap). Somehow we managed to clear our portion of the street before we even had breakfast.

Frank and a neighbor drove to Home Depot since we didn't have a gas-powered chainsaw and would obviously need one (in the coming days Frank would blow through three new chainsaws - something would break and he would return it to Home Depot with a receipt and come home with a brand new chainsaw). It took Forever for them to come back, trees were down everywhere and Rt. 280 was a parking lot. Thanks to help from neighbors they were able to chainsaw branches of the pine and pull it away from the house. We spent much of the day chopping and hauling that tree to the curb. I managed to injure my hip - here's a tip for you - don't pull And twist at the same time, that's a great way to throw out your hip or back.

So if you look at our house the forest to the right was decimated. Here is our neighbor to the left. Nice rootball, huh? Much later we realized that the reason we had no injuries and fatalities in our neighborhood is because all of our homes had held up during the storm. Our house is made of large cedar planks and huge beams in our great room. It's funny because in the past it always concerned me that I would walk from one end of the room to the other and the entire house would crackle as it expanded and contracted with temperature changes. I'm not worried any more, it seems to have passed system test.

Driving around the next day was surreal. There was one house cut in half lengthwise by a fallen tree. It looked like a dollhouse, and you could see straight into the rooms on the second floor. I remember thinking: nice lamp, Cute wallpaper! I began to realize we were in this small postage stamp of an area that looked like a war zone, about a two minute drive in each direction, and beyond that everything looked normal.

Here's a two-parter, a couple houses down from us. I have to admit, I couldn't help chuckling when I saw these immaculately manicured bushes up in the air like that. This picture and the next picture are two halves of the same tree. The tree has long since been removed and those cute little bushes restored to their rightful place in the yard.

We had something like 81 poles down in our area, it took 5 days for us to get power back. You really appreciate hot showers and clean laundry after that (more food for thought - tankless water heaters can run off a generator, and take up less space). It took much longer before we got wifi and U-verse back. And we have no idea how long it will take before we have the heaping piles of debris in our neighborhood removed. We realize we're a lower priority.

So what were we going to do with a quarter acre of forest debris? We had a friend with a chainsaw help us on Saturday, and a group of roughly 20 adult and youth volunteers comprised of Westminster High School students at Oak Mountain and their parents. They were going from house to house for a few hours at a time, identifying and stabilizing serious and even dangerous situations (like our forest debris). I thought we had an impossible job, but a couple of experts (one or more of the parents worked at Grace Klein Construction) marched straight into the heart of the debris and started chainsawing away while others helped haul debris to the curb. They left us with a manageable situation.

Here is Frank standing in a hole made by a huge, uprooted pine tree, the rootball is behind him. That particular tree fell six inches away from the back corner of our cantilevered kitchen which we'd renovated last year (and it was Grace Klein who did the installation :).

I still don't understand why we only heard glass shattering, and not all of this destruction happening feet away from us. You'd think we would hear trees snapping like toothpicks.

And what happened inside the dining room is pretty amazing too, not that possessions mean a whole lot in this context. The pine tree came through one of the four windows in our house that hadn't yet been converted to double paned windows. To think I'd been nagging Frank when you could argue procrastination in this case was a good thing. Facing the house, to the right of that window was a hand-carved bookcase with antique books. Unscathed. To the left of that window was a glass curio cabinet with delicate tea cups, hand blown glass from Venice, Italy and collectibles from Japan. Untouched. The skylight in the dining room? No damage to the rafters. I'm still scratching my head. Then again, dad missed being bombed by a U-boat by one day (no survivors), so this has been going on in our family for quite awhile.

Within that week after the storm it became obvious who was hit and who wasn't. We sported sunburnt faces/farmers' tans and looked like raccoons from wearing safety goggles. We'd be standing at McDonald's grabbing a quick lunch, Frank would whip out his wallet and poof! There would be sawdust Everywhere.

If this is your idea of suburban renewal, you just might be a Pahokee redneck.

The residents of Pahokee Trace, Bridgewater Drive, and Shady Waters Lane (which is no longer shady) would like to inform you that we are having a fire sale on Christmas wreaths, furniture wood, logs, and mulch.

Chainsaws are awesome, but they need constant care. They overheat, the chain comes loose, the chain comes off, you need gas, you need oil, the chain gets stuck in a trunk. I stuck with a handsaw, and was surprised how much I was able to accomplish with that.

After five days, this is what our backyard looked like. We got an excavation company in to help with the remainder of the standing tree debris to save on chainsawing - I googled around and a Komatsu PC270 LC-7 looks an awful lot like what they brought in to clear the remaining debris. The person who operated this grabber has apparently been in one of these since age 3 (I actually don't think that's a joke) and he's so skilled he could probably tap you lightly on the shoulder. Same with the really good tree removal experts - I don't care what someone does, but when they execute their craft with such skill, precision and passion, I can't help but admire them.

Chippers, it turns out, are expensive. So I was amazed when I was hauling debris up to the curb and a family from Bridgewater Drive stopped by and asked if we wanted to use their chipper. They stayed with us for several hours, helped us clear most of the debris we had dumped in a ravine in the back of the house, and left us with two huge piles of mulch. Extraordinary people, along with many others.

Somehow, we got front row seats to a tornado dancing the hokey Pahokee through our forest, with no injuries, no fatalities, and for us, minimal damage to our house given the proximity. We were definitely kissed, and not sucker punched. Our immediate neighborhood bonded over this event. I already liked my neighbors to begin with, but to learn what everyone is really made of? It's been an honor. We've had porch parties, shared lots of laughs, and watched a bald eagle land in a neighbor's backyard. Never again will I question what is possible.