Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Fifteen Seconds

Like the Weather - 10,000 Maniacs (mp3)

Fifteen seconds. Less than that, really.

James said he felt restless. His DirecTV reception was popping in and out due several waves of the intense storms. He’s naturally a busybody. Not even early retirement in three weeks ago after almost 30 years of working as manager of the physical plant for a local medical facility could cure his need to always be doing something.

For reasons he can’t explain, he walked down to his basement.

He didn’t hear the storm coming. He’s sure he went down there for some reason. Just can’t remember why.

His pool table and weight equipment and laundry room are all down there. Between that area and the garage adjacent to it, he’s likely spent half his time at home in those areas, but on Wednesday evening, he doesn’t know why he walked down those stairs, or why he walked between the back wall and that pool table.

That’s where he was standing when the EF4 tornado punched through his house at an estimated 175mph. It obliterated his garage. It ejected the entire roof from his house. It brought his chimney crashing down onto the antique cherry dining room table once owned by his parents, shattering it and almost breaking through to the laundry room below.

He almost instantly dove under his slate-bottomed pool table, figuring it was his best chance at survival if the roof collapsed, and waited. Ten seconds is a long time when you wonder if they might be the last seconds of your entire life. That thought was in James’ mind as he crouched under his table, listening to 30-foot tall trees “snapping like they were twigs someone stepped on.”

His best guess is 15 seconds. From the time he first heard his home and property being obliterated to the moment he knew the storm had passed by completely was “at most” one quarter of one single minute.

James opened the door to his garage. His truck was there but now dented and dirtied. His Harley had been tugged a few dozen feet and was damaged. Not much else was left other than toolboxes too heavy to get sucked into the vortex.

He turned back and walked up the stairs to his home. No roof. His kitchen, living room, dining room, all covered in debris and insulation. The only rooms in the top floor left relatively unmolested by the twister were his three closets.

Next, he looked where his front door used to be and saw the neighbor’s house across the road. In the fading light of day, and even with the cloud covering, he could make it out. It usually sits some 50-plus yards off the road, but now it was a pile of rubble that had shifted some 70 feet to the right. It was no longer a house.

He ran across the road to see if they were OK, three younger neighbors he knew only so well, but well enough. James is in incredible condition for a man of 62, and I doubt the sprint over even winded him, knowing that if, by some miracle someone had survived it, they were likely in critical condition.

Fortunately, no one was there. He assumed they must not have been in the house.

What he didn’t know until he got to his other neighbor’s house was that the three roommates had actually been there when the tornado hit. They had huddled together in their tiny bathtub just in time to feel themselves and their house being lifted into the whirl of the storm. They told James all about it as they all sat together in their neighbor’s house, less than 100 yards away yet all but untouched by the storm.

Maybe watching their story will do it justice.

On Saturday, I joined half a dozen family members in helping James, my uncle, move what belongings survived the storm into storage. Folks had been with him and helping since Thursday, and moving the possessions was the final step until judgment from the insurance company and other agencies is rendered.

James is single. He divorced his one and only wife in the early ‘80s. Unlike me, my uncle takes obsessive and detailed care of his possessions. His vehicles get washed and cleaned constantly. His house and property are constantly being improved. He bought a 1,000 square-foot fixer-upper some 20 years ago and made every last improvement on it himself, with his own hands, with no help. He takes great pride in being self-sufficient and in the handiwork of floors, walls, windows, bathrooms, kitchen cabinets. He installed all of it. So when he lost his home, he lost untold hours of sweat, toil and love.

Being there in his home and surviving that EF4 forced James to have a different perspective on the experience. Had he been elsewhere when it hit, he would have come home to discover he had no home, and driving up on a scene like that without knowing it had happened would be tough.

But surviving that moment, living through those 15 seconds, forced him to keep one singular fact in mind in ways he could not have otherwise: he was alive.

He has not once complained or lamented to any of us about what happened to him.

Eight others were not so lucky. That single tornado killed eight others. The death toll in our vicinity stood at 78 as of Sunday. Throughout the Southeast, the count stood at 337, making it the second-deadliest storm in the history of our country and the worst in almost a century.

Crouching under a basement pool table as the world rages and swirls around you couldn’t help but keep the losses of possessions in perspective.


Bob said...

Quite a story from the front lines, Billy. What happens to your uncle from here?

By the way, the old Maniacs' chestnut (this unplugged version was the best one) is a nice counterpoint to the story.

BeckEye said...

You should really have a newspaper column. (Online newspaper, obviously, since apparently no one reads newspapers anymore.)

Billy said...

@Bob - He is staying with us for the next week or two. Insurance will compensate him for rental living arrangements "commensurate with" his house's size. His insurance arrangement seems, for the moment, to be pretty incredible if it comes through like it's supposed to.

@Beck - Thankee, ma'am. That was part of my newspaper job before I took my current gig. It didn't pay so well, and I lost faith that I was gonna knock Dave Barry out of syndication.

troutking said...

Pretty sure everyone will let James win the poker game this week, huh?