Preamble: I write to clarify, I write to process, I write to capture it all. Sometimes I write to heal. This post was written two weeks after a tornado hit our neighbourhood last September. It describes the event itself in pretty vivid detail. I never published it here, I guess it was still too raw. I published a different post instead, about a month and half later. Today I feel compelled to share the details. I guess healing happens in stages.
Voici, a description of that time a tornado hit our neighbourhood…
Two weeks ago our neighbourhood was hit by a tornado.
Seriously, a frickin’ tornado.
Those who know me well know that I am NOT a fan of thunderstorms, a tornado was one of my biggest fears. Well then… Check. MARK!
I don’t even know how to write about this.
We are safe. We lost seven trees in the front yard and none of them hit our house. I assume D. has a horseshoe hidden somewhere up his @ss and isn’t telling me.
Meanwhile today, two weeks after the event, I watched moving trucks roll in to pick up the belongings of my neighbours whose houses were deemed uninhabitable.
They did not fare so well.
The neighbourhood is a recovering disaster zone - literally.
The night it happened was chaotic and surreal.
We had a tornado warning that afternoon, but nothing much was happening. D. and I hung out in the lower level of the house nonetheless, just in case. After a heavy downpour the warning was downgraded to a watch. “Great!”, we thought.
Immediately after that we heard a sound.
“It sounds like someone’s garbage can is rolling on the street in the wind”, D. said.
It kept rolling. And it kept getting louder. And I remembered the words I’d read in the tornado warning earlier that day urging people to take cover if they heard a growing roaring sound.
“That ain’t no garbage can”, I said, “Basement! Now!”
Apparently elocution goes out the window in time of crisis.
I ran down, D. stayed upstairs just long enough to see the wind start whipping around and the BBQ start to lift. Then he ran down too.
The power was already out due to some high winds so the basement was dark, illuminated only through a few small windows. We stared at each other wide-eyed for about 30 seconds during a loud “WHOOSH” and it was done. Silence.
We didn’t really have time to be scared. We didn’t really know what to think.
We walked upstairs, somewhat stunned.
The first thing I noticed were the windows, murky with leaves and mud.
“Our crabapple tree is at the door”, D. said.
“OMG our blue spruce is completely uprooted and on its side!”, I yelled.
“B. & H.’s tree is down across the street too!”
That’s when we realized that something big had happened.
We walked out the front door and around the apple tree. B. & H. walked out their front door, just as stunned as we were.
“You OK?” we all yelled.
Then we walked out onto the street and saw the destruction. Trees piled on the road, roofs ripped open and one hundred year old white pines snapped like matchsticks - our green neighbourhood canopy gone.
In 30. flippin’. seconds.
It started raining again. We walked around anyway, stunned, trying to make sure that everyone was safe and sound. It felt like everything was in slo mo. I wore my $14 black rubber boots from Walmart with the red jeans I’d worn to work that day.
A woman tugged on a large pine branch that was down on the road, trying to pull it to the side. I started to help.
“I’m S.”, she said, “I live around the corner.”
“I’m Stephanie. That branch might be too heavy for us.”
“We’re full of adrenalin”, she said, “we can do it.” And we dragged it onto our lawn. It put pine sap on my red jeans.
I wandered around the corner with my neighbour. The destruction was just as bad if not worse.
People stood in the middle of the street and stared at their homes, many of them partially crushed by 150-foot tall pine trees.
One guy looked at me and said “What does one DO after a tornado?“
“My neighbour just called 911”, was all I could muster. I knew the question was rhetorical.
“I have hockey tonight”, said another guy.
I walked back home.
Emergency response teams arrived shortly after. So did more residents.
The storm hit at 6PM so some people were on their way home from work. We watched neighbours walk up the street, stepping over branches and tree trunks, fear and panic on their faces as they got closer to our court.
It was awful.
One man, briefcase in hand, looked terrified as he rounded the corner. His children who were home with his wife when it happened ran to him, sobbing.
I saw another couple we knew coming up the street. I knew their house was badly damaged, but they didn’t yet. It was gut-wrenching to watch them turn the corner knowing what waited for them.
Police officers, firefighters and paramedics ran through the streets. All the roads were blocked, no vehicles could make it through.
“We’re not telling you to leave, but use common sense”, someone told us.
A gas leak was discovered at the end of our street. “You must evacuate”, we heard.
It was chaotic.
After contacting our families to let them know we were OK (my parents watch the weather network!), we contacted our friend M. who offered to pick us up at the closest meeting point and house us for the night.
We ran into our house with head lamps in hand and threw stuff in some overnight bags. The house was dark by then, there was still no power.
“Only what I need for the night…”, I told myself. Toothbrush, PJs, comfy pants, comb, deodorant, book, find-a-word book and pen. Find-a-words soothe me.
My hands shook as I stuffed each item in my orange day pack, adrenalin still pumping.
We set out into the night with our bags and our head lamps, trying not to trip over anything.
Others did the same.
One family walked beside us, rolling their suitcases over and around branches, dodging the tree trunks. The mother and I chatted, I don’t even remember what about. She was crying and obviously shaken. She was holding her little girl and I cheerily asked the girl what her name was. I don’t remember that either. I DO remember another man - most likely a stranger - speaking to the toddler in a cheery voice, telling her that she was heading on an adventure, a camping trip!
The mother put on a cheerful face too. All of us trying to make things seem as normal as possible for the sake of the little one.
We found our friend in the parking lot of a nearby strip mall. We noticed that the local grocery store, the mall’s anchor store, was open and operating on generators. It was probably around 9PM and we hadn’t had dinner yet so we popped in to buy chips, croissants, and for some reason I picked up a loaf of my favourite sprouted grain bread. I guess I sought comfort.
The store lights were low, fridges were draped in large plastic sheets and pop music played over the speakers above. A guy came in for some ice, probably hoping to save food from going bad.
Traffic and street lights were out, the drive to M.’s home was dark. It went quickly, M. navigated the unlit streets like a pro. We were welcomed at the door by his wife R. and oodles of warm candlelight. Finally we could unwind a bit - or at least try. I was grateful. I still am.
Next up: In The Morning Light.
Judging from that last sentence I planned to write a sequel detailing my experience the next morning, when we came back home and saw the devastation in daylight for the first time. I never wrote the piece. Maybe the words will come later or maybe the time and the need to explore that experience through writing has passed. Who knows.
I write to clarify, I write to process, I write to capture it all.
Sometimes I write to heal.