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Our Disaster: What Happened

Updated on May 23, 2012

An Anniversary

A year ago today—April 5, 2011—the local NPR affiliate for Jacksonville, Florida was abuzz with warning: a line of severe thunderstorms was approaching rapidly from the West. Strong winds, severe lightning, damaging hail and possibly tornadoes were expected. “Be ready to seek shelter,” the announcer advised.

There wasn’t much on offer in the second-floor St. Augustine Beach condo we were renting; probably the windowless bathroom would be best. It was early and my wife was asleep. The announcer was clearly right: the Western sky had a very dirty look indeed, dark grey with storm clouds, and soon enough, the smear of distant rain falling. It was time to pay attention.

So I’d sip my coffee, listen to the tornado warnings, pad out to the access gallery overlooking the parking lot to watch the clouds, and perhaps tap out a few more words on my laptop. It didn’t take the storm long. Soon rain was blowing against the door and lashing the palm fronds outside the window. Exciting, with a slight tang of danger—but not too much. It looked worse to the North over Jacksonville itself, and the storm was passing quickly out to sea.

Sure enough, in a half-hour or so the winds died down, the rain stopped, and the storm was over. Jacksonville had taken a hit: large numbers of homes were reported to be without power. Our electricity hadn’t even flickered—though the radio station had gone off-air briefly. My wife, awakened by the thunder, joined me for a cup of coffee, and I told her of the tornado warnings, the damaged homes. The sun was trying to emerge, and it looked as if we would be enjoying another day at the beach, despite the early drama.

Then my cell phone rang.

Storms at the beach aren't new, of course.  Martin Johnson Head painted this one in 1861 or 1862.
Storms at the beach aren't new, of course. Martin Johnson Head painted this one in 1861 or 1862. | Source

Tornados And Thunderstorms, Oh My

The springs of both 2011 and 2012 have been marked by unusual numbers of serious, and sometimes deadly, storms. 2011 was the second-worst year for tornado fatalities ever experienced in the US, and:

Due mostly to several extremely large tornado outbreaks in the middle and end of April and in late May, the year finished well above average in almost every category, with six EF5 tornadoes and nearly enough total tornado reports to eclipse the mark of 1,817 tornadoes recorded in 2004, the current record year for total number of tornadoes.


The statistically-anomalous nature of the 2011 tornados was noted by one notable blogger, who put it in a particularly clear light:

The preliminary count for April 2011 is 875 tornados, which
is more than three times as many as the previous record of
267 back in 1974. Yeah, more than three times as many. This
year’s April count is only preliminary, and may well be
revised downward as duplicate reports are identified. But
it’s still one hell of a hockey stick.

For me, it’s not academic. The NOAA storm report for April 4-5 has this laconic comment:

Snellville is our town. Straight-line winds in nearby areas—the towns of Grayson and Centerville—were measured at 58 mph, so it’s a reasonable guess that that’s what our oak trees experienced, too. And wind gusts would surely have been considerably higher.

When these sorts of straight-line winds are associated with a strong front covering hundreds of miles--and that normally means association with severe thunderstorms and even tornadoes--they are called "derechos," from the Spanish word for "straight." This is meant to contrast with "tornado," which some derive from the Spanish word "tornar," to turn.

Etymology aside, the damage dealt Snellville by the derecho was anything but isolated. In Georgia alone, there was a long litany of damage reports, covering most of the mid-to-Northern parts of the state. The Wikipedia summary only mentions the fatal tornadoes, such as this one described by NOAA:

But as the system tracked across Georgia, more that 50 counties would report storm damage—downed trees everywhere, golf-ball-sized hail, power outages, and hundreds of damaged homes—crushed (as ours was) by falling trees, blown off foundations, or relieved of roofing and then flooded with rain. One house was yet more unlucky:

The Call

When you are on vacation at the beach, a cell-phone call from home at 8:30 in the morning is rarely good news. This call was no exception.

“I’m sorry, when we went out this morning we saw that one of your trees had fallen on the house.”

“Is it bad?”

“Well, I’m hearing water running inside and smelling gas. I’m not letting the kids inside.”

“No, you mustn’t do that! Have you seen the animals?”

“No, not yet. I’ve phoned 911, though—the fire department is on the way.”

“Good. Let’s talk more later—I’m going to get on the line to the insurance company.”

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Gwinnett Fire Department on scene.Gwinnett Fire Department on scene.
Gwinnett Fire Department on scene.
Gwinnett Fire Department on scene.
Gwinnett Fire Department on scene.
Gwinnett Fire Department on scene.

Numerous calls followed. Our house is insured by USAA, a non-profit cooperative for military and their family members, and they acted with commendable efficiency. Despite the fact that there were half a dozen or so damaged homes in Snellville, ours was the first one ‘in line’ at Purofirst Gwinnett, the emergency response clean up company that USAA assigned our case. Their crew was out with a heavy crane a little later that day, lifting the tree from out of our house.

(I mustn’t forget to thank the responding crew from the Gwinnett FD, who went above and beyond their basic duty to limit any further damage to our property. Not only did they locate the main breaker and turn it off, eliminating the very real possibility of a gas explosion, they also moved some of our vulnerable furniture out of the area directly underneath the damaged roof. Atlanta Gas Light crews were also promptly on the scene to turn off the gas, eliminating another source of hazard so that the clean-up crew could do their job. I’m grateful to all these crew members, and I’d like to thank them publicly now.

(In addition, I'm extremely grateful to our good neighbors, and to members of our church community at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett, who helped in many, many ways.)

So, what does the result of just one unremarkable ‘downed tree’ look like?

Where the tree struck.

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Interior: Master suite

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Interior: Living room.

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That Was Then

...and this is now.

It's now almost the end of May--the 23rd, actually, which is by a slightly ironic coincidence the anniversary of the terrible tornado strike on Joplin, MO--and considering that I began drafting this Hub on April 5, you can see that even now, dealing with the emotions associated with this (minor) disaster remains challenging--if not, I would surely have polished off this Hub in a week or two at most!

Thankfully, the tornado season of 2012 has gone quiet after a record-breaking March. One hopes that this condition will continue as long as possible.

The longest, most involved part of the story of a disaster is the part telling of the intricacies of dealing with it. That part of the story of our little disaster is picked up in a companion Hub, Our Disaster: What We Did. (I expect to publish this Hub about mid-June, 2012.)

It blends a narrative of our experience with some tips for those who may be so unlucky as to undergo the loss or damage of their home, whether the result of wind damage, flood, or fire. Though some details will differ in each case, the machinery of insurance, contractors and the like is still the same. So are the feelings of shock, disorientation, anxiety and impatience--not to mention the feelings of hope, gratitude and appreciation.

Thankfully, they are part of the experience, too.


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    • Doc Snow profile image

      Doc Snow 5 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA

      Thanks for commenting. Flash, our house is mostly OK, though choked with massive amounts of boxes. There'll be more on that in the sequel Hub!

      Johnathan, I couldn't agree more--I think!

    • Johnathan L Groom profile image

      Johnathan L Groom 5 years ago from Bristol, CT

      enviromental activism is misinterpreted by radical centrists due to the efforts of centrists in the 1st place!

    • flashmakeit profile image

      flashmakeit 5 years ago from usa

      Sorry to read about that horrifying accident. A tree fall on our car during a storm. I hope you are able to repair your home.

    • Doc Snow profile image

      Doc Snow 5 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA

      Thanks for checking out the account of 'our little disaster.'

      Have you been through something like this? Or maybe you have questions? Just a reaction?

      I'd love to hear from you. Disaster famously brings communities together--but that's not always a given; sometimes it can leave you feeling pretty isolated, too. So "don't be a stranger!" (Even if you are, technically speaking.)