Friday, December 23, 2011

Stormy Christmas


The view today of my parent's yard, the rubble of my dad's barn, various sheds and outbuildings, and what's left of my grandparent's house. Taken by me from on top of my parent's house as I assisted in getting some tarps down over their exposed roof.

A little after 5pm yesterday afternoon we were hit by a large red cell in a line of storms moving through the southeast. The wind blew very hard for about 15 minutes and then it was all suddenly over. The wind, the rain, everything. But, during that brief period our power went out. Jennifer and I sat around the house, enjoy some beers and in a fairly relaxed holiday spirit.

The power didn't come back on so after awhile Jennifer decided to call my parents to see if they had power. They live about 5 miles away to the north of our land. All I could hear was my mother screaming into the phone and Jennifer saying "Oh no! Oh my gosh!"

Without knowing anything, I was already scrambling for some proper clothes to go out. "Your mom said all their trees are down and the house has been hit!" I raced out the door. It was already getting dark, near the end of the rainy, cloudy day.

I got my brother on the cell phone. He had already tried to get over to my parents but all the roads from his direction were blocked by downed trees and power lines. I took a back road over the the main road toward their house but the police shut down that road a few minutes before I could get there and would not allow me through. I went through a subdivision, knowing where I was in relation to the house but not knowing the roads exactly. After several dead end cul-de-sacs I managed to find a side road over to where my mom and dad live.

All this time my brother remained on his cell phone with me. He arrived a few minutes before me, as I was still negotiating the subdivision. "This is pretty bad. It's just really bad," he kept saying. When I finally arrived I had to swing over into a neighbor's yard to dodge a fallen tree in the road. It was completely dark when I got there but I could see plain enough that things were chaotic.

My dad was walking around trying to do what little he could. He was wearing a Christmas t-shirt with red and black plaid pajama pants tucked into shin-high waterproof boots. My mom was in the back bedroom of the house. She was fairly hysterical but I sat with her awhile to help calm her down.

Virtually all the trees around the house were down. About 20% of the metal roofing was missing off the house. It was hard to tell with just flashlights. Inside there were towels and pans and buckets everywhere on the living room and dining room floors catching about a dozen places the ceiling was leaking.

Outside, there were trees down on neighbor's houses, cars had been crushed, one house was completely blown away. My parents carport had been lifted briefly by the force of updraft wind, twisting the entire roof about an inch or so, causing some minor buckling. The carport itself was hanging with all but one of its pillars tilted or missing.

But no one was injured.

I walked around the area with my flashlight. Our barn was a pile of rubble. My grandparents house - abandoned for years since their death - had the roof ripped off it. It had been there for about 130 years, a testament to how much time had passed since anything this severe had hit this little spot on the good Earth. All my dad's storage sheds were gone. The small building we always called "the smoke house" was completely missing with hardly a trace but for the gray sodden footprint of where it stood.

This is the toughest time of the event for me personally. The realization and weight of the moment hit me hard. Of course, people die, places change, but the life memories you have from childhood are ever-treasured about the people and places of your youth. We made home-made peach ice cream under that downed tree. We had family gatherings in this now trashed room. I hauled so much hay up into that barn loft. And so on.

The weight of it came crashing on me. The past moves away from you, it becomes an echo to you, but in this case the past had been stomped on and ripped from me forever. The past had not faded, it had been suddenly, mercilessly blown away. Everything changed. My mom was crying over it. My aunt, dad's sister, who had been, like him, born in my grandparent's house, was emotionally heart-broken. I took measure of it all.

Then I was over it. Matters had to be delt with. I sat with my parents until things settled down. The ceiling started to become more stained, the leaks worse, the walls apparently having taken some water damage as well. But, gradually things settled down.

The power was still out. In fact, it was out over the entire eastern half of the county. We didn't get power at my house until today, almost 18 hours later. Anyway, I looked over mom and dad's house as best I could. Inside and outside. There was no damage on the west side where all the bedrooms and bathrooms are. The seeping water was isolated to the east side, the living room mostly. The kitchen was fine.

I couldn't do anything more so I left and got back over there early this morning. Before the circus started. The mass assault of contractors and restoration specialists. The news media in trucks and flying in helicopters. My mom and dad made both the Atlanta and Chattanooga TV news.

Meanwhile, my brother, his father-in-law, myself and a handyman that Jennifer and I rely on for odd jobs around our house got some tarps and nailed things down securely over my parent's roof. We got a jack and shored up the sagging carport, putting the pillars back where they were originally. They brought dehumidifiers and massive fans into my mom and dad's house. All the Christmas presents had to be removed, some of them soaked. We will not be having Christmas in this house this year.

My brother's Sunday School class brought a huge tray of Chick-fil-A with all the fixings. Which was a wonderful gesture. We spent part of the afternoon sawing tree limbs and helping dad get over into his pasture to check on his small herd of cattle. They were all fine but the fence is destroyed in dozens of places over the 120-acre pasture. That is an issue yet to be resolved; along with all the damage to his sheds and barn. None of his tractors or mowers or his four-wheeler were damaged. As Jennifer put it: "Everything on wheels made it fine."

The coming weeks will be tough for my parents. Their house might be structurally unsound to the point that they will need a completely new roof. At a minimum all the carpet and ceiling will have to be replaced in their living-dining area. That is the stuff that is fixable. They are retired and really have nothing better to do. My brother and I are here to help.

Tragedy breeds closeness. Human behavior in the face of natural disaster might be the best case for human goodness. It just seems to come from everywhere, a ground-swell of compassion and cooperation and concern that we just don't seem to get in the political or economic arenas of life.

At any rate, it is an exhausting and humbling experience. Especially, at this time of year. But, we will get through it. And we will learn to let go of everything that has been blown away. We will haul it off and burn or bury its remnants. And something new and promising and deserving of our most ardent hope and appreciation (like the acts in childhood that slowly became memories in adulthood) will grow in its place.


This old ash tree made a direct hit on my dad's primary shed. Splat! Other tree and fence damage is visible. My family owns the view and there are dozens of trees down across fences and everywhere else. It will be a long clean-up.


A news helicopter broadcast this shot of a home about 1/3 of a mile from my parent's house. Obviously, it was completely destroyed and blown far off its concrete pad. Three people were in the house at the time. But, they managed to get into the bathroom and survived.


Another news helicopter shot, this one of my grandparents house. It has stood here since the 1880s. Plans are to bulldoze everything now.

A local, reliable handyman, myself, and my brother get ready to start putting down tarps. At the moment we are trying to figure out what is best to do about a two-foot hole in the roof and all that wet insulation that is underneath weighing down on the living room ceiling. Some experts will have to handle that. Fortunately, we know a good one.

1 comment:

Terence Watthens said...

It's a good thing that no one from your family got injured during the storm and your house is still standing. I guess you are now helping others rebuild their roofs, right? A random act of kindness to everyone will keep the spirit of Christmas alive, even in times like this.