Before, During, And After The Storm

For those of you who don’t know me personally, a tornado hit my small rural hamlet on July 6, 2022. Riding the heels of Ohio’s first Independence Day where fireworks were actually legal, it caused quite a shock to our senses. Granted, there’s no “good” time for disaster to strike, but this definitely qualifies as a blindside.

Rain had been predicted, which most residents in the Ohio Valley know to mean that somewhere in the Tri-State there will be a period of about 20 minutes where outdoor activities get a little soggy. The temporary break in the humidity following the rain makes it a welcome event, well worth clothing being dampened by something aside from your own sweat. At a point “pop-up” showers changed into a potential threat of severe weather. Gazing up at the azure blue skies and marshmallowy white clouds assured us that it must be Indiana getting that kind of action, or Northern Kentucky perhaps, but certainly not us.

We were in the midst of having our roof repaired after a series of brief weather events finally penetrated through the shingle layers causing a pot-catching sized leak around our furnace. The roofers had already affixed the new shingles the previous week, and on this day were tearing off our old soffits.

Delayed in their tear down by a swarm of carpenter bees that we didn’t know had taken squatting license under our eaves, the men were finally starting to nail on the new boards. I rarely have interior lights on during the day, having been asked nigh on a million times as a child,”Do you think I work for the electric company?” I noticed a darkness falling over the normally well-lit living room and decided to pop outside to see if the marshmallow cloud family had just gathered together for a reunion, or if actual rain was about to appear.

Stepping out the front door, I see my husband trying to help the kind young man originally from Monterrey (now a proud Ohioan) standing on and next to metal ladders beneath clouds whose visage had changed from marshmallow to campfire smoke. I yell to the roofer Eddie over the din of the nail gun’s air compressor, “¿Estoy loco?” Then, not knowing the word for lightning in Spanish, I just hollered it in English. Eddie, whose English is miles beyond my ability to speak in his native tongue, flashed a megawatt smile and said, “When it rains, I stop. Okay?”

He also pointed out that it appeared to be moving north. Being a directionally challenged blonde, I grabbed my trusty cell phone to pull up the weather radar. A large band of green, yellow, red, and pink filled the radar screen. The pink, normally reserved for celebrating the arrival of a baby girl or the presence of Pepto Bismol, instead forecasts doom on a weather map. I ran out the door, cell phone flailing and temporarily unable to access the word “rosa” from my woefully small Spanish lexicon. Thunder now harmonized with the caucophonous song of the compressor and I shouted, “Pink. Not rojo, pink! Es malo!” Eddie’s eyes widened and he started to mutter, “Pink, not red,” over and over as we clamored to gather all the tools and supplies that could be ruined.

Drops began to fall as we were finishing up and we all stood with our arms outstretched and faces upturned to enjoy the cool bath that was relieving the stress of our hurried actions and the heat we’d been toiling in. We were actually laughing and smiling and I even managed a chunky grandma pirouette. All of a sudden, as if the saturated clouds were being wrung out by an unseen pair of hands, a deluge came pouring down. We raced for the cover of the open garage, still giggling like children. Then the text came.

To be precise, it was a text, an instant message, and a missed call from my middle sister.

“Are you talking shelter?”

“The news is saying a tornado was spotted by the lake.”

Before I could listen to the voicemail, the power flickered once, then twice, and John and I both stared intently at the lone bare bulb in the garage. Eddie, being unfamiliar with the rural parts of Ohio was likely curious about our frozen intensity, and his cousin who is new to the US in general was probably baffled. Our fixed gazes were waiting to see if a third flicker was coming. Like many of the “Rules of Threes,” power in the country flashing a third time is no bueno. It means you’re definitely going to lose electricity. Number three arrived and we were plunged into darkness.

My brain finally registered what my sister’s multiple messages had conveyed. I told my husband John, Eddie, and his cousin that we needed to get inside. A tornado was close. The roofing duo resisted. I’m not quite sure if it was out of professional courtesy, or my lack of knowledge of how to say tornado in Spanish, but we overrode their objections and guided them inside.

At first they didn’t want to enter beyond the mudroom. For those unfamiliar with said room, it’s pretty much what the name implies. It’s the area of the house where you strip off mud-caked shoes or clothing soiled by a variety of countrified labors. Unfortunately in this case, it also has three windows that no longer open. Not the best place to be standing if the tornado paid a visit. Through multiple combinations of welcoming and discouraging hand gestures we convinced them to come as far as the kitchen.

Our quartet stared as one out the lone window in the kitchen that looked over the backyard. Our eyes were affixed to the wavy looking weather vane. It appeared misshapen because of the wall of water coming down over the gutterless roof. It was spinning wildly. Not just the face that tells you there is wind, but the entire head pointing first North, then Southeast, followed by West and every incremental direction imaginable. Figuring out where it was coming from or heading to was utterly impossible.

I began scurrying about the house to collect my significantly immense hoard of candles for light. Soon enough we were bathed in a glow that rivaled the incandescent bulbs of yore.

Once our unexpected houseguests no longer had to feel like strangers in the dark, I began trying to call my sister. Cell reception is spotty in our house under the best conditions. In fact, we still have a landline to compensate. The only problem is our landline (for cost-cutting purposes) is now bundled through cable. No power equals no cable equals no landline. I managed to find a spot where if I stood as still as a marble replica of myself, I could get a connection that allowed two words for every five to come through. Thankfully being sisters for 51 years gave us the gift of speaking in shorthand. My brother-in-law was watching the news coverage and relaying the pertinent information to my sister who then passed it to me.

The storm was moving fast. (No, duh! We could see that. What about the tornado?) The tornado had already hit and was dissipating. Thank God! The lake my sister had referred to is less than a mile from our house. It’s actually a state park, but not the fancy kind with rangers patrolling. I felt relief that while some wildlife might have their habitats disturbed, at least our human neighbors would be spared. I relayed the news to Eddie, who translated it for his cousin. The rain was all but gone and they smiled and told us they’d be back to finish the next day. Adioses and waves were exchanged and John and I went back inside expecting our electricity to be restored in an hour or two. Totally delusional in hindsight.

You see, the reports had been inaccurate. The tornado didn’t hit a mile east of us, displacing trees and wildlife. It had hit two miles west of us, right in the center of our two stoplight town. My phone was flooded with messages asking if we were safe. As I responded to them in rapid succession, I noticed the 4G icon change to 3G then to 1x, then disappear altogether. Our sole remaining connection beyond what we could see with our own eyes was now severed. Nerve-wracking, frustrating, infuriating…pick your adjective. I was somehow still receiving texts, but everything going out was stuck on either “Sending.” or “Queued.” I hated the thought of loved ones worrying needlessly, and also my inability to know what was going on a stone’s throw away.

Pictures requiring downloads filled my texting app. So. Annoying. I obviously appreciated the efforts to alleviate my ignorance, but those dang white and gray boxes were a vicious taunt in the moment. I decided to hop into my car and see if the next street over had better Verizon reception. They have far fewer trees than our densely wooded property, not to mention I’d be away from our veritable Farraday cage of a house.

The next cross street is a mere 600 yards away, so my 17 year old silver Cobalt and I made the trek. As I mentioned before, this road had fewer trees. It still did, but the ones they had were in starkly different positions than the last time I had travelled down that lane. Some were split in two with the top half reclining on the ground next to its former appendage. Others were completely uprooted in tandem with giant mounds of dirt clinging to their root systems. And sadly several had found new resting places on the rooves of my neighbors’ homes.

The shock of it had sent my original mission straight out of my mind. I sat there mouth agape soaking in the destruction. Never in my half century-plus on earth had I been this close to a natural disaster. There’s a separation that occurs when you see images from far-flung places on a screen. A subconscious, “I’m here and that is there,” that dulls the impact. We may feel sadness or shock when we see it, but we can’t feel the energy of it. In person, the energy is undeniable and overwhelming.

I snapped back to completing the goal I had set out to do and phoned our kids to let them know we were safe. Their concern now allayed, I saw a text from John on my phone. I had failed to tell him of my 600 yard jaunt and horrible visions were running through his mind. Utterly thoughtless of me to not have predicted that, because I definitely would have felt the same if our roles were reversed. I made a U-ey in an unmarred driveway and returned.

I learned why his fears had been amplified. He’d found a nook in the house where he could both send and receive texts. The news was bad. Homes and businesses and even a large chunk of our firehouse had been swooped up in the tornado’s vortex and strewn about town. Our in-ways and out-roads had been converted into a sadistic rat maze. People desperate either to make their way home (if it still existed,) or intent on escaping the chaos were met with tree-blocked streets or live wires halting their routes.

I tried phoning friends in the area, one of my closest being the bartender at our local watering hole. I repeatedly heard the dreaded Verizon mistress’s voice notifying me that my call couldn’t go through. Panic set in and a deep need to know that my friend was okay overtook me. Never wanting my rare overly emotional nature to be on display -even to my husband- I played it off to John that we had earned a drink and should head up to Critters. He lodged no objection, and was in fact happy to have a way to numb the panic I’d just caused him.

We drove the mile or so in the opposite direction of my original trip and the road looked like it always did. Nary a roof out of place or tree toppled except for a pine in our own yard that we should’ve felled long ago. The pub was dark when we arrived, but there were several cars already parked out front. Darkness doesn’t bar one from imbibing afterall. The front door was locked, but before we had a chance to take a step from it, Becky popped out from around the side of the building to greet us. Instant relief on my part that my friend was okay, and a smile on John’s face as well knowing a well-earned shot of tequila was within his grasp.

If you don’t frequent or have a local watering hole, you may not be aware of what a hub of information they are. The proof in that pudding was served up when Bec whipped out her phone to show us video and stills that she and the bar’s owner Ty had already amassed. They had seen the debris swirling in the air from the bar’s front porch. Once the storm passed they rushed to see what was still standing and what could be done to help. John and I immediately felt like a couple of slackers in comparison, but it didn’t stop us from entering the pub for a jigger of tequila and an Amish cream soda respectively.

Bec’s coverage rivaled any of the news crews who trickled in much later in vans and helicopters. Rumored destruction of our only grocery store was quickly debunked by my fact-finding friend. And not just flatly denied, but attached to a tale of her friend Jim who had waited out the storm in the store’s parking lot. Other rumors proved true, however, and were evidenced in color photos. Our firehouse was half of its former self. Houses were either untouched or leveled in some twisted game of duck, duck, goose.

The energy I spoke of earlier had shifted to one closer to that of adrenaline. More locals began trickling in for their own one-on-one news sessions, so we paid our tab, tipped the remainder of Mr. Jackson and bid our customary “Thanks,” and “See ya!” We headed back to the Farraday cage we call home.

Both during the ride and after arrival was a bit of a rambling mess of non sequiturs. Our brains were both overloaded, and while John and I often wind up on the exact same page, our methods of arriving there are vastly different. I want to quietly flip through the Dewey decimal based card catalogue, and he wants to discuss things in depth with the librarian. He won out and we talked about anything and everything even tangentially related to the day’s events.

We marveled at the sheer randomness of who and what was spared. We mapped out a plan to preserve the ungodly expensive groceries I had just stocked our fridge with that very morning when the world was still cloaked in azure and marshmallow. We continued the hopscotchesque ramblings until we both realized that it was darker outside our powerless home than in, and we were exhausted. We’d need sleep to face the next day, so we succumbed to it.

The next morning, with no alarm to roust me, I woke up a little after five. What some may deem my more Stepford qualities would not be hindered by a lack of electricity! I filled my teapot with water and took it out to our grill. The moment it whistled, I turned off the burner and went inside and made myself a cup of tea. That would not cut it for my still-sleeping mate though. I had the ingenious idea of pouring the hot water over the grounds already prepped inside our Mr. Coffee. Newsflash: that does not work. What I did will henceforth be considered InJENious which is now the antonym of ingenious.

I turned around from my handiwork of grounds covering the machine and the counter, only to see my husband awake and fully dressed with his patented one eyebrow raise on his mug. Translation: “What in the Holy heck are you doing?” I sheepishly showed him the 4mm of coffee that had made it into the pot as an offering toward leniency in mockery. He chuckled and gathered up the camping contraption that actually does what I intended the traitorous Mr. Coffee to do. We shared small talk over coffee at our picnic table in the back yard, and then he headed off to see if he could buy ice somewhere nearby.

While he was gone I started handsawing a limb we’d failed to notice the day before dangling precariously over our driveway. Once sawn and hauled off, I started in on the lone pine casualty. Sawing a tree isn’t as easy as sawing a limb. A chainsaw would have made quick work of it, but would you trust a Stihl in the hands of a woman who had just unintentionally obliterated a coffeemaker? I thought not. So I proceeded to make littler pines out of a big one until I got to the point where I felt we could push the trunk against the edge of our woods. I went inside to wait for the Iceman to cometh.

He’d been able to sweet talk his way to not only double the two bag limit, but also to convince the manager of the store that the limit was unjust under the circumstances. She repealed the edict immediately. The ice purchasers that followed would likely be grateful if they knew of John’s persuasive plea on their behalf. Not really the stuff heroic German operas are composed of, but a kindness nonetheless. We put a bag of ice on each shelf of the fridge and shut the door. Those of you puzzling over the validity of that method need only to remember that the ancestor of the refrigerator was known as an ice box.

Now that our produce treasure was guarded by an ice dragon, we went about the rest of the day hauling said mini-pines, prepping antique kerosene lanterns for use, and making a run for batteries. We normally sleep with the TV on so that it drowns out the constant noise in John’s ears brought on by four decades of factory work. The previous night we had made do with Captain Lee narrating his book “Running Against the Tide” until my Kindle ran out of juice. Tjat night we’d be luxuriating to the sounds of classic rock once the necessary 6 “C” batteries were acquired.

After John’s ice run, he had told me how harrowing the drive through the rat maze had been. To avoid the same difficulty, I took his exact route. The only problem was, in the ensuing two hours, his route was no longer passable. It was now my turn in the maze and I don’t possess John’s calm nature. Not only was I struggling to find my way through, but I was being repeatedly accosted with visuals far more terrifying than what I had seen on a cell phone sized depiction. Much worse even than what I witnessed with my own eyes on my 600 yard voyage. Total devastation. And the energy had shifted again. Logically you’d expect to feel pain, or anguish. It wasn’t that though. It was numbness. The locked in place nothingness of your brain being unable to process what you are seeing. I’d just learned a few days before (from a Chase Hughes YouTube video) that prior to Fight or Flight comes their less frequently referred to red-headed step-sibling Freeze. That was exactly the mode my brain went into. It froze, but then prayed. Prayers of gratitude that we had been personally spared, a prayer for guidance about what we could and should do to help, and a prayer that God would help these poor people who hadn’t been as lucky as we were to find their way through.

Help came and was and is being given. It is coming in a multitude of forms. Professionals offering their services free of charge to help clear our roads. Neighbors lending tools and sweat labor to neighbors in need. Organized food drives and pantries gifting supplies of all sorts. First responders and Duke Energy employees working round the clock to bring us the often unappreciated ability to flip a switch and have light.

As I was typing this, my personal hero husband and our dearest neighbor Rick returned from their quest for a battery back-up for the sump pump, so the crawlspace doesn’t flood completely. They arrived with an even greater Holy Grail-adjacent artifact in times of no electricity: a gas powered generator adorned with four precious-as-gems outlets. The fact that they found one, let alone one in our single income price range, is nothing short of legendary. The Knights of the Chevrolet Trax will have their tale of heroism told. At least for one generation. This one. Right now in this blog. Not quite the fame of Camelot, but it beats a kick in the head.

While the saga is not over, it will take much time for our town to heal. We’ll have to learn to revel in and subsist on these stepping stone acts, that will eventually lead to a restored foundation, and finally a completion of repairs and normalcy. We have to accept that in a world of instant gratification deliveries of groceries or online purchases, that not everything works that way. But in a world of dark smoke-colored clouds spinning wildly, we can once again find the hope of azure skies and marshmallow puffiness. All it takes is charitable minds, kind souls, and hearts of service.

In fact those three things might fix more in this world than just tornado damage.

May blessings find you and warm your heart. -Jen

Published by Jen B. @JenBennsJourney

Full time housewife, mom, & grandma. Learning to manage depression and anxiety by talking about them and other things along the path.

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