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Posts tagged ‘tornado’

cycling, interrupted

The month of March feels kind of like a vinyl record with a scratch in it; there is still a lot of music, but there are skips, repeats, and the tracks don’t always play as they should.  For now, I am starting at the present, and moving backwards – in pieces.

Our son Mason came home from school for a brief weekend visit, as we had missed him over his Spring Break.  We got to catch up, get back on our bikes after too many days absence, and do a little leisurely riding in the incredibly balmy temps that have been setting records across the country.  Mason had spent his break with a team of students from his university; they travelled to the islands of Trinidad & Tobago to work on a Habitat for Humanity Global Village project –  mixing concrete, shoveling sand and helping lay the foundation for a family’s new home.  There was a cement workers’ strike on the islands, so they really had their work cut out for themselves – mixing everything by hand with shovels and a lot of muscle.

He had some wonderful stories (best listened to while we were out on our bikes), made some new friends, got some running in (lol), and I loved that he took some time from his busy schedule to do some giving back.  (Photos from my son’s camera).

 foot race challenge

Habitat for Humanity Global Village, Trinidad & Tobago … the cement mixing

While Mason was off getting dirty and building houses, the rest of us headed to the mountains for our annual week of skiing in Colorado.  It was a well-needed break for all of us.  The snow was wonderful, the skiing fantastic, and like in years past, it was hard to come back home – I always tend to leave a part of myself in the snow and mountains, and someday may be staying for good.  My plan is to post a gallery of snow-mountain-ski pics of this place I love, my second home, later this week.  But for now I’m just including a few of the bike-y ones (and a snowy one … because it’s been so warm everywhere else).

I love the active mountain culture in Steamboat, and especially that they are so bicycle friendly – they are an LAB Gold Level community.  Skiers on bikes, bikes loaded with everything from groceries to snowboards to dogs and kids.  Weather, altitude, snow-covered roads are never a deterrent.  One of these days my dream is to have a little house along the Yampa River, riding on the Core Trail into town for breakfast or lunch, and loading my skis on my Xtracycle for a trip to the slopes.  Oh, perfect life.

And then there was all of the tornado and Red Cross stuff that I had left off with.  Sigh.  I am relieved to report that the damage was not as massive in scope as last April – which is still little consolation to the people who have lost their homes – and we are all grateful that no lives were lost.  Our local Red Cross chapter joined with folks from Chattanooga and Knoxville, and the relief efforts went very well, as you can read in detail here.  (Photo credit for these two shots from my volunteer friend, Sandy; my camera stayed at home).

But very sadly, in the midst of all of the disaster response, our chapter suffered another major blow; due to continuing reorganization and personell changes, we now no longer have a Disaster Services Director in our chapter.  My friend, mentor, and “boss”, Michele – a 10 year Red Cross veteran – is no longer with the organization.   This change in addition to the other personell cuts made earlier in the month, I can’t help but think that the writing is on the wall, so to speak.  It appears our small local chapter has effectively been dismantled at this point, and I am greatly saddened … I honestly don’t know what my own volunteer future will be.

Most frustrating, no one from the upper echelons seems to be providing any communication/direction to the volunteer base.  It reminds me of sitting in an airplane on a runway with no pilot … are they going to cancel our flight?  Are they going to send another pilot?  Or do they just expect one of the passengers to take the controls?  Like I said, it’s just incredibly frustrating – which made my decision to leave for some skiing during Spring Break a little easier.

I am back to my bike, my silly routine.  I am sorry to have not been able to finish the Utilitaire games, but I take my hat off to The Old Guy and my other friends who finished successfully – I applaud you all.  And I thank MG for the dreaming up the whole idea, for I had great fun participating for the weeks that I was able to – which, for me, is what it was all about anyway.  It made me re-think variety in destination riding, and I look forward to incorporating the goals into my riding routine.

Hopefully the remainder of March will be a little more normal, a little less interrupted, no big scratches.  We’ll see.

nightmare, revisited

It’s almost unfathomable that we could experience another nightmarish day of tornados again after last April – that catastrophic weather could be spawned across the country once again.  First Illinois, then Alabama, Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee again, and I don’t even know the continuing scope of today’s damage.  But locally, our fears have become reality.  Again.

A tornado (tornados?) tore through our county again today, hitting almost yards from some locations that had been devastated last spring.  Our home was spared, yet again other nearby neighbors not so lucky.  Again.  My friend Jenn’s neighborhood was hard hit, and my heart goes out to them.  A neighborhood next to our middle school sustained major damage, homes destroyed.  Injuries.  Reports of people pinned and trapped in collapsed buildings eastward in the county.  The news is heartbreaking – from here to surrounding states.  And the night is not yet over.

Our Red Cross disaster assessment team go out as quickly as we could, and before we could even get assessment numbers on one neighborhood, we were called back in because of a second round of tornado warnings being issued.  I’ve seen one very small neighborhood, a few streets, and I don’t even want to imagine what else lays out there, judging from reports I have heard.

When we got the call to come in, take shelter, we headed over to the local EOC, watching radar, listening to reports being radioed in from various sources.  We ran out of daylight, and now the only responders are emergency fire and rescue personell.  I know it will be an around-the-clock for these people, along with our Red Cross Disaster Director and the shelter staff.

The Red Cross has opened a shelter, the calls from local residents are coming in at a steady pace.  As I write this, we are under another tornado warning.  I am home with my family, and our hand-crank radio is at hand.

So, not unlike last spring, I am signing off for a period of time unknown.  I think it will be Utilitaire #fail … as there is work to be done, and not only locally.  I suspect I may be deployed within the coming days, weeks, depending on how we can manage locally.  We’ll see. But I am ready to go.

Please support your communities if they have been hit; please support your relief agencies who will be working to serve across the country.  Families are in need.  Donate your time, donate supplies, donate your dollars if possible – they will be greatly needed.

And please … have a plan, make a kit, be prepared.  Godspeed.

the Red Phone at the EOC … can’t help thinking we need a BatPhone

six months

a family recovers

I suppose I should begin with a statement along the lines of, “the views and opinions expressed in this post are mine alone, and do not necessarily represent the views of , well …  anybody else – organization, agency or otherwise”.

Today marks six months since our community was devastated by the April 27th tornados.  I was invited to attend a community gathering to celebrate one family’s perseverance and hard work on their journey to recovery, as they moved into their new home – built on the very site where they had lost everything six months ago.  The rebuilding was a collaborative effort – from the weeks and months of sweat and toil by the homeowners, coupled with help from several local agencies, the long term recovery committee, and the generosity of numerous local contractors and suppliers who provided manpower and materials.  I applaud them all, and I am so happy that this family has been able to rebuild and remain in the place they know as home.    It exemplifies the good that can be accomplished by a community pulling together, and the strength of a family who never gave up hope.

But as the minutes passed, and the state and local political dignitaries arrived, along with their carloads of security detail, the media, etc.,  I couldn’t help feeling a little uncomfortable.  I know it is “the way of things”, but I personally dislike the whole ribbon-cutting-for-political-photo-ops routine, the talking-head political speech-izing for exposure…  the pat-myself-on-the-back “yes, I knew I had to get on the waiting jet to fly home from my duties in the legislature to see what I could do, blah, blah, blah.”  (Yes, one of them really said that.)

political photo-op field day, all cameras on the politicians as one of the homeowners (red-haired woman in background) stands aside and watches

And as wonderful as it was to see so much rebuilding in this hard-hit neighborhood, there are still many families who are still struggling to recover – houses right across the street that have no roof, people fighting with insurance providers, homes that have been left damaged and even abandoned.  Several neighbors (in less fortunate states of rebuilding) were watching all of the hoopla of politicians and the media from across the street – and I couldn’t help wonder how they were feeling?

still struggling... across the street

a neighborhood coming back - gradually

across the street

I was happy that the homeowner was given the chance to say a few words, but at the end of the day it felt a like political showcase.  And, in my opinion, Mr. Legislator, the press-worthy heros – or at least the ones I would rather celebrate and hear speak on this day – are the first responders, firefighters and emergency response workers (standing quietly in the background today) who were pulling people from the wreckage of their homes in the dark;  the families who ran to help their neighbors and offered them shelter;  the local businessmen who donated tens of thousands of dollars in relief supplies;  the local community agencies and the long term recovery team who continue to work with struggling families.  While I know that politics played a part somewhere in the disaster response equation, it is the reaction, action and perseverance of the local citizens and community that has accomplished the most good.

heros ... in the background

the politics of ribbon cutting

I confess I left with mixed feelings.  Happiness for the family returning home, grateful to the countless community heros who are still hard at work, troubled by the sight of neighbors who continue struggling to recover and rebuild – and sadly, some disdain for the politicians who grabbed this opportunity for press coverage.  Just my opinion.

There were some drawings from neighborhood school children that were clipped to a clothesline in the background of all of the ceremonial stuff … and they spoke to me.  I’m not even sure if any of the politicians noticed them?  When the words “hope” and “joy” are clouds above a piece of heavy equipment moving debris, when the sky is streaked with ink black and crimson, when the sun is bright yellow above a family cat that survived the storm – these are the voices of recovery I hear, and the ones I will never forget.

Hope and Joy

 

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disaster relief on two wheels

a hawk dropped into the frame

It is a very good thing that I completed #330daysofbiking when I did … I think I have just had the longest stretch of not being on a bicycle in several years.  Twelve days, no cycling; fourteen days of Red Cross Disaster Relief.   And not a moment of regret.  It has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.

Are things back to normal?  Hardly.  A funny thing about natural disasters  – from tornados, to hurricanes, earthquakes and floods – when cable news has moved on to the next breaking story, the communities that were effected will spend months, even years, recovering and rebuilding.   Healing –  on all levels –  takes a very, very long time.

I have to believe that almost everyone who lives here has been affected, either directly or indirectly.  Colleagues at work who have lost their homes, neighbors who have lost family members, friends at school who were severely injured … everyone is connected to the devastation to some degree.  Lives have changed.   At present, we are simply out of the immediate “crisis” mode.  Now begins the recovery.  And it will be a long ride.

My boys have all arrived home from college (for a few weeks, anyway), and on my first day “off” and away from the disaster efforts, I finally had a chance to take long and much-needed ride with my son Mason.

While too many familiar landscapes have been drastically altered and damaged, and it’s still nearly impossible to travel many of our local back roads without encountering various work crews still continuing the endless repairs and clean-up, I realized that I really needed a change of course.

I needed to leave the piles of rubble and the smell of burning pine behind me.   I needed some open space, green fields and fresh air.  I needed roadside daisies.  I needed to find beauty again.

And my heart lifted when I found that it was all still out there.

Getting out on my bicycle again, seeing green fields, being with my son, feeling the rhythm of  heartbeat, pedals and breath … it was my own personal disaster “relief”.

What lies ahead?  I am not entirely sure.  I have signed on with the Red Cross as a regular volunteer and have enrolled in their Disaster Services Human Resource System.  I’m continuing to help with follow-up work being coordinated through our local Chapter’s office, and am looking forward to continuing disaster response training and becoming an active responder.  I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with experienced Red Cross Disaster Relief teams who came in from around the country; I learned so much from them, and made some very close friendships along the way.

I also want to extend an enormous and overdue thank you to all of my friends (both local and cyber) who extended so much help and support – from your personal notes, to finding much-needed material items (including a twin bed), monetary donations, offers of manpower, and even mailing a hand-crafted prayer shawl across the country for a woman in our community.  Your generosity and kindness is unparalleled, and has been appreciated more than I can express.

Mostly, I have been forever touched by the individuals and families I have been privileged to serve and have gotten to know over the past few weeks.  You are in my heart, and I will never forget you.

(Slideshow:  amazing friends from Red Cross Disaster Relief)

 

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beyond plight

I took this photo with permission from the incredible young woman standing beside the tree, with hope that it will get someone’s attention – and some desperately needed help for her.

This is the mobile home she had been renting, and what you are looking at is huge tree that had fallen right through the center of it – directly onto her young son’s bedroom – literally splitting the structure into two halves.  You are looking at the “inside” of the center of her home.  When the storm approached, she was alert enough and quick enough to snatch her son from his bed only moments before it fell, saving his life.  Miracle.

One half of the structure has no roof – and there is rain in the forecast.  She is living in the other half a good part of the time,  relying on the generosity of friends at other times, and working to find affordable new housing.   But like so many others, I know she is still functioning in a state of shock – shaken, upset, and often barely holding it together.  Most of what is left of her belongs are damaged beyond recovery, scattered across the hillside.

Here we are – almost 7 days later.  There is no power, no water, and her landlord is demanding that she vacate and remove her few remaining possessions from the property within the week  … and she has to climb over this damn tree every time she enters or exits.  It is just beyond ridiculous.  She cannot find anyone to help her get this behemoth removed.   We can bring her meals, batteries, diapers and bottled water – but we can’t get the stupid tree out of her way.

And this is only one desperate story of hundreds I have heard over the past few days.

We’re doing out best out in the RedCross vehicles from 10 and 13 hours a day, bringing hundreds of hot meals, emergency supplies (as we have them), and as much comfort and consolation as we possibly can.  And there is just not enough.   We start making friends, we learn the names of the family dogs, we hear and see the unbelievable; we hug, we laugh, we cry.

Yet I find myself becoming increasingly frustrated as the days pass –  mostly over the mind-boggling absence of coordination and horrible logistics planning among the gazillion number of churches, organizations, schools, relief agencies and everyone else who has the best of intentions (I truly believe this), but seem to be operating in nothing short of barely-organized chaos.  (And yes, I well-remember Katrina, and I know this is nothing compared to that mess).  I realize that no one is perfect, and the scope of this disaster is extraordinary for this area.  But unbelievably, there is almost possessive in-fighting among various groups, over who should/shouldn’t be handling this or that – and to me, that is completely unacceptable in a situation as dire as this one.  It helps no one, and it must change.

At the very, very least, we need to get this tree out of this poor woman’s way.  She doesn’t care who does it – it just needs to get done.  (Insert expletive).

love letters

Today I cried.

We returned to one of the houses from yesterday – the house with the little dogs.  Thankfully, they are now being well-cared for and waiting patiently for their injured owner to recover.

We were helping to clear a spot on the property for some heavy equipment to come in and do the big work – moving branches and pieces of lumber, sorting out scrap metal.

We also made an attempt to retrieve some salvageable items and personal belongings – somewhat unsuccessfully, as the debris pile was so incredibly broken.  It was literally like “trying to find a needle in a haystack”.   Yet here and there we would uncover a small porcelain figurine that was miraculously intact under a pile of cinderblocks and a steel door.  There was no pattern to what had survived and what had not.

found a quilt

My tears came when I found an old box of letters – postmarked from the late 1950’s, handwritten in beautiful scrolling penmanship on delicate paper – the kind that was once used for air mail.   They appeared to be love letters.  The salutation on one of the open pages began: “My Dearest Beloved …”  And I read no more, but gave them directly to the person collecting the personal possessions.

It’s difficult to handle the pieces of someone’s life – much more so than I ever could have expected.  We tried to save even the smallest items that were intact, because how can you possibly know what might have a special or sentimental meaning to the owner?  And to pick up something private and dear like an old letter … well, it can feel almost intrusive.

By mid-afternoon we had done as much as we could at the site, and left to help with a Red Cross van that was delivering hot meals to people in need.  The number of people who are able to stay in their homes but are without power (and often water) remains significant.  Eating cold sandwiches gets old pretty quickly.

our (empty) Red Cross van ... which was filled with boxes of hot meals prepared by the volunteers at Walker Valley High School

 While I am tired, and stinky, and a little bit sunburned  … I feel so incredibly fortunate.  The people I love are close and safe.  I can take a hot shower and drink a cold glass of water – with ice.  I have lights, and the little music box that was a gift from my boys is in its place on my bookshelf.  My bicycle is not wrapped around a tree.  I have clean clothes to change into, and a soft bed to sleep in.  I am truly blessed.

sifting through ruins

Through a chance and random conversation, I ended up with a volunteer crew trying to help several local families clean up and sort the the ruins of their homes.   As the damage assessment throughout the Bradley County continues, the need for helping hands grows.  As of this afternoon, I am now a “spontaneous” volunteer for the Red Cross (and hope to become a regular volunteer in the near future).  I am scheduled to help in whatever way they may need me over the next few weeks.

I also want to make it clear that while I did have my camera with me, I was reluctant to even take it out of my bag in respect for the privacy of the families we were working with.  However, after some time together, several of the families almost encouraged us to use cameras;  they seemed to want to “document” the scene, saying it was “important for other people to see” what had taken place.  And so, when I had moments, I shot as respectfully as I could.

While men with chainsaws and BobCats worked to clear the heavy debris and tree limbs, several other women and I helped clean up the cuttings and helped a few homeowners sort through the rubble to reclaim items that could be salvaged.  I have to confess that it was heartbreaking at times – seeing cherished pieces (and simply ordinary pieces) of a family’s like strewn about like an afterthought.

On one property, I met an elderly woman who was combing through the debris at her son’s house – which had been completely demolished.  She seemed to need someone to listen to her – she talked and told me so many details of what had happened, what her son’s house had been like, where they had been when the storm struck.  How a basement didn’t help.  And the terrible aftermath.   It was as if she needed to verbalize the experience, and I can only hope that I helped her in a small way by being there to quietly listen.

there was no safe place - even in a basement

One of the most difficult moments of the day for me was finding 3 small dogs hiding in the ruins of a demolished home.  One of the neighbors told me that the woman who lived there and owned the dogs had been injured and had been taken to the hospital.  It’s unclear whether or not she had any family to come and retrieve and care for the dogs.  So I went and got some dog food and bowls of water, and the neighbor and I worked on making sure they would be cared for until they can be reunited with their owner.  (The Red Cross is also working on pet rescue in the area.)

As of today, the county schools will be closed through May 6th.  Two of the elementary schools sustained significant damage and will not reopen before the end of the school year.

My son’s high school will be opening their doors next week to serve meals and allow residents and out-of-area volunteers to use the showers.  My son, and many of his fellow students will be volunteering to help through efforts coordinated by the school.

As I write this, so many thoughts are swirling through my mind.  I haven’t seen a moment of the whole Royal Wedding – and I don’t care.   I apologize for not replying/responding to friends who commented on the previous post – I thank you for your concern.  I don’t think I will be taking or posting any more photographs of the damage – it almost makes my eyes ache with sadness to shoot these scenes.  (I would never cut it as a photojournalist, apparently).

I also know that there are other areas of the Southeast, from AL to GA, and even within Bradley County, that have suffered far more than the destruction I’ve seen in a few small areas here.  My heart aches for all of them, and I hope that anyone who reads this can reach out – to volunteer,  or donate supplies or funds to relief agencies.   Please help in whatever way you can.

These are the last photos … from today’s efforts.  (You are in my prayers tonight, Mrs. Johnson).

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