Our Disaster: What Happened
Early on the morning of April 5, 2011—a year to the day before I first began this article—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.
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.
- Year of the Twister | Open Mind
The statistics of tornados in 2011
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, whichis more than three times as many as the previous record of267 back in 1974. Yeah, more than three times as many. Thisyear’s April count is only preliminary, and may well berevised downward as duplicate reports are identified. Butit’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:
- Local Storm Reports from April 4-5 Severe Storms
NOAA reports on the tornadoes and "Great Derecho" of April 4-5, 2011.
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.
- The Great Derecho of April 4-5th, 2011 | @wxbrad Blog
A Carolina take on the storms of April 4-5, 2011, with an explanation of the term "derecho."
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:
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.”
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.Click thumbnail to view full-size
Interior: Master suiteClick thumbnail to view full-size
Interior: Living room.Click thumbnail to view full-size
That Was Then
...and this is now.
It's now almost the end of May, 2012--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.
Sally's Rains, September 17, 2020, Lake Wateree, SC
Update: September, 2020
The longest, most involved part of the story of a disaster is the one telling of the intricacies of coping. I had planned to pick up that part of the story of our little disaster in a companion Hub to be called Our Disaster: What We Did. It would have detailed our experiences dealing with the machinery of insurance, recovery companies, contractors and short term rentals. It would have been both practical guide and account of the emotions.
And it would have been a worthwhile project. But I waited too long, and recorded too little of the overwhelming minutiae you must wade through. It had become a jumble in my head--and one that, emotionally, I had little wish to revisit. So other projects took precedence, and What We Did became just another loose end.
But despite blurred details, the experience wasn't forgotten. So it was that, when Hurricane Harvey struck Texas on August 17, 2017, I wrote Charm For A Way. Among other things, the lyrics said:
The long months drag by, one long struggle with papers,
But sweet dreams of home still surprise.
Tempers are fraying, and minds keep on straying
To scenes playing behind the eyes.
One foot past the other, and don't lose the focus
A day will come when this all ends--
Reconstruction sufficient, bureaucracy sated,
A day for the family and friends.
Recovery--coping--isn't easy. But it gets done.
I originally closed this Hub by noting the "feelings of shock, disorientation, anxiety and impatience--not to mention the feelings of hope, gratitude and appreciation." The latter come courtesy of Mister Roger's famous "helpers." Normally, they are there, and we certainly found our share, back in 2011. As I wrote, "Thankfully, they are part of the experience, too."
As I write this update, the rains of Hurricane Sally are falling upon our roof--no longer in Snellville, but by the shore of Lake Wateree, SC. And we are thinking of family who, thankfully, evacuated from the Gulf Shore to avoid Sally's impacts. Their house should be OK; it's far enough up to be safe from the reported storm surge, and most of the trees have been cleared out by previous hurricanes.
And we remember, too, that not so long ago Hurricane Laura destroyed so many homes and businesses of people in southwest Louisiana, like the proprietor of the "Anchors Up Grill," whom we met in January of 2017. She and her husband were still recovering from Rita; now her business is just roadside scrap. Those folks aren't getting much help, by all accounts.
So I'm thinking that now it's my turn to be a helper. I don't have much money, but I do have this Hub, and I do have a song to offer. So I'm putting them in service of the "Atlantic Hurricane Recovery Fund," run by the top-rated Center for Disaster Philanthropy. (Four out of four stars from Charity Navigator!)
How about you? If this story speaks to you, click one of the links below.
And stay safe!
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