I can officially say I survived an EF-4 tornado. Our home and neighborhood were directly in the path. Full brunt! We had plenty of warning and could see it coming our way. We have a decent storm bunker in our basement (sort of) but took additional precaution and fortified it with extra protection.
My wife, daughter and I grabbed our pets and a couple of personal items and got ready for the worst.
I knew we were in its crosshairs based on the trajectory being reported by storm trackers. I watched it come over the western horizon. As the tornado approached, I could hear the eerie roar fill the skies. It was not a traditional funnel cloud but rather a huge wall cloud complete with torrential rain. I took one last photo before ducking in to cover (the pic above). The lake we live on had a spooky silence and stillness cover the surface of the water. The leaves on the trees across the lake from our home were inverted as they were being sucked into the evening sky changing their normal color from green to grayish-silver.
As we huddled tightly together in our cramped space, we heard the muffled sounds of banging, clanging, and clanking. I could only envision in my mind the destruction taking place overhead. It seemed like nearly a minute went by and there was finally a lull. I left our place of safe hiding and ventured out. What I saw and heard outside our basement sliding door told me it wasn’t over yet. The chaos seemed to be gaining momentum, not ending. I ducked back into cover – again more loud banging. Another 60 seconds passed and finally, things seemed to calm a bit. Accounts from various sources in our area suggest they saw and experienced two vortexes – I’m a believer. I ducked out again to see if the beast had passed. I gave my wife and daughter the all clear and we all proceeded upstairs to assess what might be. It was difficult as torrential rains continued.
Fortunately, the countless trees that surround our fairly secluded six-acre homesite took the brunt of the destruction on our property. Our house, despite some minor damage, was virtually unscathed (without question, a visible answer to prayer!). Our property, however, was a literal war zone: century-old trees uprooted and snapped in two, debris strewn everywhere making exit impassable, patio furniture, potted plants, pool coverings, metal siding and building insulation from neighboring structures thrown about like small plastic toys, a smattering of shredded wet leaves and small debris covering all the exterior windows and walls of our home and barn. Several homes just a few doors down in our neighborhood were completely demolished.
My first instinct in the twister’s wake was to check on our neighbors and determine their plight. Not trying to sound heroic, but I didn’t take much time to assess our damage. We just headed out in the pouring rain to check on others. Trees were down everywhere and most roads in our area were impassable. In fact, we couldn’t get out of our driveway so we had to improvise. I ran upon a group of neighbors who I had never met simply trying to open up a passage on an adjacent road so first responders could pass and attend to the tragedy. It was an impromptu and urgent act of teamwork by a group of total strangers.
House by house people were emerging with a look of shock on their face… but alive!
Over the course of the next couple of hours, I had a flood of text messages from friends and family who had seen coverage of the destruction in our area on TV. Needless to say, I wasn’t watching my phone so I didn’t even notice until hours later (plus the coverage was sketchy at best). When I did, I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of concern. Was very heartwarming to receive dozens and dozens of “offers to help.“
The next morning we headed over to one of our neighbors who had completely lost their home and helped them scour through some of their remaining personal belongings, load a few truckloads in our pickup and take them back to our barn. We felt like we were fortunate given all things and that helping someone with greater need was a priority. Maybe the other side of it was not wanting to deal with the reality of our own devastation and war zone.
As we began to assess the scope of damage and destruction, formulate a rough cleanup plan and invite those who had offered to help to the “party,” I realized then that those offers to help I had received just hours before were generally pretty empty. It was almost as if “hey, Hiss is OK, his house is still standing… now back to my daily thing…when’s my tee time?”
Meanwhile, a freaking war zone awaited clean up.
Introspectively, I was very convicted as I’ve often “offered to help” with very empty intentions to actually follow through. Or I’ve offered to help and was waiting for a call and formal parchment paper invite, Evite or Sign-up Genius for a time, job duty and list of work items to bring (as if I were clocking into a job).
The thing I’ve learned firsthand is that those who are reeling from disaster rarely can think clearly, much less formulate a project plan for cleanup and recovery. The folks I mentioned earlier that we were helping scour through personal items were delirious – not in a negative kooky way but just overwhelmed. I observed the same with people we helped in Greensburg, KS when that community was leveled by a tornado. The magnitude and scope of loss is inundating and overwhelming! It was the same when I visited the gulf area after Hurricane Katrina. Devastation of that magnitude clouds our thinking, emotions, and perspective.
And this sensation is certainly not limited to weather related disasters. Tragic death of a loved one and other life-altering circumstances are certain catalysts for similar reactions and subsequent needs. As a very sweet and generous neighbor named Melody, who came by with a box of her special handcrafted cupcakes remarked, “Yep, that was definitely my experience as well,” following the sudden and tragic passing of her husband two years ago.
As one of the amazing volunteers, Casey Self, who showed up at our house the night of the disaster to see if we were OK (generator in hand) and the next afternoon, chainsaw in hand and tractor in tow, stated it in a post he made on Facebook:
“Tip for those wanting to help with manual labor but may not know how. Just show up anywhere you see people working with your boots on, ready to work, bring chainsaws, pole saws, gas, tools and don’t ask “can I help”, just walk up and say I’m here to help. what can I do? There is so much to do still and no one will say no. When you are done there, go to the next house and repeat. If you can’t do manual labor, be a driver and drop off goods to the volunteers.”
And if you really have no intentions of helping, don’t offer. It’s frankly better if an offer is not made versus an offer and then an unwillingness to show up. I’m very very grateful for those friends and family who did come to our aid, rolled up their sleeves, sweated their asses off and helped us dig out. I’m also amazed at the speed with which our first responders and utility crews work to restore the things we take for granted such as electricity. We were without power for nearly 3 days and was reminded how fortunate we are to have this convenience daily at the flip of the switch.
I was sharing with my business partner Dan Cooper some of the differences I’ve experienced around the meaning of community. I grew up in a small farm community. When crisis struck, everybody dropped everything and helped. We rallied. When Greensburg was destroyed, people from the community and surrounding communities parachuted in to help. They dropped everything. Just showed up! I don’t see that type of reaction here. Everybody’s sort of inwardly focused on their thing and that sense of community doesn’t exist in the same way.
This is not intended to be criticism – just experiential reality.
Last perspective, the only things in life that really have significance or meaning are family, relationships and our faith in a powerful and loving God! Just showing up is one way we can demonstrate our true friendship and be a reflection of His amazing love for us!