Saturday, February 2, 2013

An Unseasonable Interruption

My grandmother's house last Wednesday.
This past Wednesday, a tornado ripped through a nearby town and much of our county, destroying dozens of houses, knocking out power and phone service to 2/3 of the county.  The estimated wind speed was 160 mph.  There were two fatalities.  Total property damage was at least $70 million.  More than 260 structures were affected throughout our county with over 30 homes completely wiped out.  One of those homes used to belong to my grandmother and is pictured above.

My mom's mother died a couple of years ago and the family sold the property to a locally known investor who remodeled the house and turned it into rental property.  Apparently, the structure took a direct hit and was blown off its foundation, along with two large oak trees planted by my grandfather in 1952, into the major highway that runs about 100 feet in front of the house.  The highway
was a dirt road when the house was built in the early 50's.  My mother wasn't born there but she lived most of her life there until she married my dad.  We used to go over there on Sunday's after church to visit, share a meal, play cards, go for walks to the pond in my granddad's pasture, tell funny stories, watch TV.

The highway was blocked by this and all sorts of trees and other debris from neighboring homes for about six hours following the storm.  It took awhile just for emergency responders to saw their way through the storm's wreckage and actually get to the really sad and major damage. I guess at some point during that clean up they scrapped what was left of the house out of the road and into the ditch were it still sits in a odd looking wad today.

There was a grandmother and her three-year-old grandson inside the house when the tornado struck.  Both lived but suffered various injuries.  The small boy, covered in a heavy blanket at the last minute by the grandmother, survived with a broken leg.  The grandmother fared worse, with a broken back and many lacerations.  She was taken to Chattanooga for treatment, but is stable today.  Rather miraculous.  But, the house where I spent so much of my youth is gone with the wind, sure enough.

Long-time readers know that a tornado hit the home of my parents just before Christmas 2011.  That storm demolished the old house of my grandparents on my father's side.  Last week's tornado got the house of my grandparents on my mother's side, about 3 miles south as the crow flies from my other grandparents' home place.  The tornado took basically the same track as the one in 2011, only the damaged was much more widespread and it fortunately missed my parents' house by about 1/4 mile this time around.  Still, it dumped 3 inches of rain on my parents' farm in a half hour.   It is curious to note that each house of my grandparent has now been destroyed in separate tornadoes 13 months apart.

I watched the wicked cell intensify on the NOAA web site radar from my PC at work.  When it became obvious that it was only becoming stronger and that its trajectory was in the general neighborhood of my house I called Jennifer to warn her.  Tornado sirens soon were going off near where I work.  After I saw that the cell had passed the area of my home and headed northward I tried calling Jennifer again but couldn't get through.  Several minutes later she managed to reach me with a weak cell signal to tell me she was fine but the house was without power.  Then she lost signal entirely.  Her parents called me about an hour later to express concern.  Like me, she had called them on a weak cell signal to say she was fine. By that time there were all kinds of rumors about the damage, mostly exaggeration, of course.  I decided to drive out and see for myself.  This was 90 minutes after the storm had passed.

I had no idea of the true extent of things.  Everything was normal where I worked.  Just some heavy rain.  At first I tried the main road to our house but soon became snarled in gridlocked traffic.  My grandmother's house, downed power poles, and a bunch of other things were blocking a couple of miles of that roadway at that time.  I couldn't get close enough to see any damage, however.  So, I tried a side road only to drive into a devastated rural landscape.  Hundreds of trees were snapped into pieces.  Several homes were destroyed.  It was my first view of what would become a much wider path of damage.  Once again I used the amazing turning radius of my old Subaru wagon to turn myself around and quickly get away from the blocked area.

Lines of cars were forming everywhere around me.  The next two roads I tried yielded the same results.  Everything was blocked with similar destruction.  I knew from following the cell on the radar that it had basically plowed right up the middle of the county.  Of course, the radar didn't tell me where it hit the ground and where is simply whirled in the dark rainy clouds.  Every road was blocked.  There was simply no way I could get to Jennifer.  I went back to work and awaited more information.  After a bit the intense rain let up and Jennifer finally got out in her car and drove on the other side of the tornado's path to where she could get better cell reception.  I was relieved to hear from her and she thought it was silly for me to even get out and try to drive in these conditions.

I had been on the phone with my parents as well.  I knew that the storm had proceeded in their direction after coming within 3 miles of my house.  They were fine though my brother, who was at work as well and blocked like me, had called my dad to inform him that a neighbor had phoned stating he had some damage to his house.  My brother, who lives less than a mile from my parents, wanted my dad to check it out.  My dad told me that he couldn't get out at the moment due to the intensity of the rain.

It turns out my brother's place had a hole in his roof which led to some water damage inside his hallway, his garage door was twisted and unworkable, he had lost some siding, and the violent winds flipped his heat pump over, ripping it from the house.  Structurally, however, he was OK and fared much better than many of his neighbors whose homes no longer exist or are so badly damaged they presently cannot be inhabited until they undergo major repairs.

Jennifer and I were unaffected but for a loss of power for about 9 hours and no phone or Internet service until today.  It was rather strange being without the Internet at home, which is our source of all information and much of our entertainment.  Moreover, Jennifer runs her business out of our home and had to work Thursday and Friday from her parents' house.  She cannot do business without Internet connectivity. My daughter went going stir crazy with school cancelled and without Facebook or cell reception or TV shows on the Internet.   She fled to a friend whose house was unaffected by the chaos.  I passed the time in the evenings reading Nietzsche and listening to music on my MP3 player.  But, I caught myself on more than one occasion launching Safari on my iPad before I realized that, for us, there was no one out there.  As aggravating as this was, all I had to do was drive to work each day, see the damage everywhere, to recalibrate my sensitivities.  My family's sufferings were trivial.

I don't know if tornadoes are more prevalent in this neck of the woods than they used to be.  Jennifer and I have had several close calls through the years living here dating back to 1994 but it sure seems there have been more than usual just since I started this blog.  I have mentioned tornadoes in the area several times along with massive rains and flooding.  It is easy to say this is a change indicative of global warming.  I mean neither myself nor my dad recall tornadoes here in December and January during our lifetimes.  Maybe that is a naive understanding on my part.  I have no hard data.  But, with this most recent storm and how it has affected my family directly or indirectly, Jennifer and I have discussed how we feel like sitting ducks awaiting the haphazard verdict of the next great wind.

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