Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Yes, we were lucky

Our new to us car was crushed.

It was supposed to be a typical Wednesday evening – no big deal.

I arrived home around 4:15 p.m. to prepare supper for my in-laws. We bring it to them most Wednesdays and my wife visits them while I cover the Chicopee School Committee.

While I put some meatballs in the microwave I looked out through our back porch. It was raining a bit and I wondered which, if any, of our cats were outside. I had heard there was a threat of a tornado, which I immediately discounted. The storm was intensifying and I thought, “I’ve never seen a thunderstorm like this.”

That’s because it wasn’t just a thunderstorm.

The winds quickly picked up to a level I’d only seen on televised news reports. The color of the sky was a shade of green. When a huge tree came crashing down from my neighbor’s yard, I knew this was no ordinary thunderstorm.

I watched the winds selectively snatch the cable for the television, phone and Internet from the side of the house and pull it.

I walked from the kitchen to the dining room with the porch door flapping crazily in the background. The noise of the wind was deafening. Having most of my windows open meant they were saved from being blown out by the difference in pressure, but it also meant the winds came into my house to do damage.

The winds popped out the window screens. It pushed a glass jar off the mantle, which broke on the floor. Debris from leaves to pieces of insulation in the wind was deposited almost everywhere.

The cliché of the tornado seeming to take forever to pass while in reality only lasting several minutes was true in this case. When it was over, I was in a daze.

I looked out my front door. The tree that shaded our living room had been uprooted and it laid length-wise down the top of my relatively new car. A large piece of roof decking from someone’s house was mixed in with the tree. Another tree near the driveway was snapped into two pieces, which hung together.

The debris around my car blocked Spruce Street and two other downed trees covered the intersection with Hawthorne Street.

The trees in our backyard, which provided shade for the house, were all destroyed. A spruce tree was snapped close to its base. Two maple trees were shredded. There were broken limbs, roofing material and glass everywhere.

My back porch was structurally intact but most of the windows were destroyed and part of the siding near the roof was gone. A quick look around the house showed that storm windows had been broken but the regular windows seemed OK.

I was startled to realize that our power was still on. The underground cables that bring us electricity in this neighborhood are notorious for having problems, either on the hottest night of summer or the coldest day of winter.

This time, though, the technology came through for us.

I called my wife and told her what had happened. She had watched the funnel cloud travel through the area from her office on State Street. She told her co-workers she knew it was in her neighborhood.

I went back to the front door and looked out. People are starting to come out of their homes. One woman was screaming the name of a child, whom she eventually found unharmed. Neighbors started going from home to home asking each other if they were OK.

A group of people started removing the tree limbs from my car with the intent to clear the street. Rain forced us to stop. When the rains stopped, more people with axes and chainsaws came back. I was able to move my car up onto the sidewalk and Spruce Street was now somewhat clear.

My wife and I have lived in this neighborhood since 1990 and have never seen people coming together in the fashion as they did that night.

A young woman walked down the street trembling and clearly distressed. She can’t get past the debris and we told her to walk up on our yard, but be careful of the boards with nails.

My wife, who had arrived home, talked with her. She lives in Sixteen Acres, but she has family here and she needs to check on them.

As the afternoon pushed on, we were visited by two police officers who were checking every home. They told us there was considerable destruction in the South End.

As dusk fell, the sky was still an odd color. One young woman declared breathlessly at one point she has heard another tornado is coming. I dreaded the thought of going through this a second time, fearing we wouldn’t be as lucky as we were a few hours before.

Fortunately, another tornado didn’t come; only rain fell.

I took a short walk down to Central Street and saw in the dusk homes with no roofs and another one, recently renovated, that was practically destroyed.

We sat on our front porch, watching lightening strikes in the distance and listening to a steady soundtrack of sirens and passing helicopters. People waked down the street asking us if we were OK.

Later than night, I watched the news conference on our television that still has an antenna. I turned it off near midnight but had a difficult time sleeping. A team of firefighters awoke me between 3 and 4 a.m. to make sure we were all right.

The next morning, I drove my wife to work. What should be a five-minute trip was lengthened due to the traffic. Central Street was closed and Florence Street became the detour. Our tiny Spruce Street – barely wide enough at times for two cars – was suddenly elevated as a main drag.

Being a journalist, I couldn’t stay at home. I got my notebooks and camera and set out walking. What I saw are things I’ve never seen in person before.

House after house had suffered damage from stripped off roofs to complete destruction. On Hancock Street I walked past the Elias Brookings Museum Magnet School. There were some children gathered there and a guy wearing a hardhat told them there would be no more school here.

Looking at the damages, I thought, he may be more correct than he really knows.

School personnel were going in and out of the building. Its windows were all blown out and there was one second-floor classroom that is completely open to the elements.

Across the street, one house had most of its front walk sheared off, giving it the exposed view of a dollhouse. Next door, another brick building was without its roof.

I met, by accident, Ward Three City Councilor Melvin Edwards, who lives in the neighborhood. Like me, his home suffered minimal damage, but we shared a worry for this area as a whole.

There had finally been some forward development in this working class, working poor neighborhood. In the Central Street corridor, the long abandoned Spruce Manor Nursing Home – a major problem – had been demolished and there are now new single-family homes being built.

As we walked up Central Street, the destruction was breathtaking. I now realize how incredibly lucky we were. Only a fluke in topography or barometric pressure kept the tornado from ripping apart our home as it did so many others.

I took photos and shot some video. Edwards and I went to Beech Street where nearly every home had been damaged including one that was lifted off its foundation.

The police had blocked Central Street as workers tried to deal with a brick apartment building that was crumbling apart.
CNN had a crew on Beech Street. The videographer told me no matter how many times he has seen scenes such as this one he can’t get used to it.

I also met a reporter from WCBS radio in New York City. He left the city at 5:30 a.m. that morning to report on the tornado, which has been his fourth one in the Northeast.

As the morning progressed there were a growing number of people driving and walking through the area holding video cameras and taking still photos. As I sat on my front steps I watched this conga line of gawkers as they drove slowly, many with one hand on the wheel and another aiming a video camera.

I felt like sharing a gesture with them.

I realized this was a historical event and people want to see it, but this shouldn’t be some sort of perverse tourist attraction.

Crews of workers came through the area in the afternoon sawing down fallen trees to make sure streets and fire hydrants are clear. A pick-up truck rolled through with a woman standing on the back bumper asking everyone if they needed water. Children sat in the truck bed handing out bottles.

At suppertime, my wife and I took a walk. What appeared to be insurance adjusters were walking throughout the neighborhood with clipboards and cameras.

As we headed home we saw two men trying to loosen a piece of metal siding from its perch in branches. They were successful and laughed, although looked a little sheepish when they saw us. They loaded the metal into their pickup, which was already nearly full.

Vultures, I thought. It didn’t take them long at all.

Although the process of getting a new car and the overwhelming chore of cleaning up tons of tree debris numbs us, my wife and I know we were very lucky. Many people were not. And this neighborhood may take several years to fully recover.

One more shot of our car followed by homes very close to us that were hit by the storm.

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