Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hit By An EF3 Tornado

On April 28th we were hit by an EF3 tornado.  "We" includes our condo, both vehicles, and "Help Me Rhonda."  Our home port, Lucy's Branch Marina, at mm 287 on the TN River, was basically destroyed. Our younger son's boat, a 23' SeaRay, was also at the marina in the dry stack storage and suffered some damage as well.  Yes, this is written 2 months later but it is amazing how your life changes in a few short minutes for months to come - we have been very busy.

On that day, a strong line of thunderstorms was headed our way with the definite possibility of tornado activity. Keep in mind that this part of the country has the nickname "tornado alley" and history has a mountain of evidence to support that. As is the normal precaution, we watched the appropriate news forecasts and alerts, but you always have in the back of your mind the thought of "what are the chances one will actually hit us?"  That doesn't mean you have an attitude of "it's OK if it hits someone else besides us" - it means you are concerned for everyone, but you look at the odds and just don't expect it to be you!

As the line of storms approached about 10 miles from the west, one of the local news channels focused on a triangular area immediately west of us and advised anyone in the area to seek shelter as we were then in an area of significant probability for a tornado.  I walked out on our back deck to take a look - our view downriver extends for several miles in the direction of the storm's arrival.  A couple of small tornadoes dropped down and went right back up in the sky.  Then this larger one formed and stayed there, moving right down the middle of the river eastbound.  Note the house next door for future reference - there are actually two 3-story homes side-by-side there.  Anyhow, one of the residents in the first house and I were swapping predictions about what was about to happen.

It was interesting to watch.  There was a wall of water moving in front of the tornado itself and everything appeared to be be headed just south of us, so he and I both stayed outside to watch.  Rhonda is smarter than the average male tornado-watcher and she had already headed downstairs.  We had decided our safest spot was in the bottom of the stairwell  for several reasons.  We definitely knew we did not want to stay in our unit which is on the top floor and fronts directly on the river. The stairwell is on the parking lot side of the building and is surrounded on 3 sides by brick walls and the elevator on the 4th side.  The stairwell and step frames are steel and the steps and landing areas themselves are concrete, so there is lots of supporting structure to improve your chances.

As the tornado moved just south of us, it "hung a left" and the the wall of water began moving toward us. The guy next door and I finally allowed "reason" to kick in and we headed for cover.  We have one of the severe weather sirens right next door and it was going nuts by this time.  When I got to the bottom of the stairwell, there were five of us there.  Most of the other condo residents and several boat owners from the marina slips had taken shelter at the far end of the building on a lower floor by the pool area.

The actual passage of the tornado took less than a minute.  The door to the stairwell shook as if it would come off the wall.  The pressure change was very evident.  The building shook.  But we never heard the "train" sound that you always hear about.  We finally got up the courage to look outside - the siren was still blaring and the wind and rain continued for a long time.  As it turned out, there were several tornadoes that touched down in the area.  Here's what we found when we went outside.  Keep in mind that our condo building is immediately adjacent to the marina, docks, and dry stack storage.

"Help Me Rhonda" is in this next pile of dock and boat debris, but still floating.

And the view from our deck - remember the houses next door?  Gone, along with our roof.

As it turned out, the guy next door actually hunkered down in the house he was in.  Right after the tornado passed and we went outside, someone found him wandering around in the parking lot and he joined us in the stairwell.  He had a cut on his head, was completely stunned, and had no idea what had happened or how how he ended up in our parking lot.  We called 911 for him and, as best we know, he had the only injury at our immediate location.  Unfortunately, two people were killed a few miles from us when their mobile home was destroyed.  It was determined to be an EF3 tornado with winds at about 185 MPH.  One of every 11 students in the middle and high school student bodies were left homeless after the storm.  It left a path of destruction about 10 miles long.  We gathered our important stuff together like pics, computers, legal paperwork, etc. and headed to our younger son's home about 45 miles away.  The tornado had pretty much followed Highway 72 toward Athens and we must have driven over a couple of hundred power lines with room enough for generally only one lane of traffic available on this 5-lane highway.

There were so many with much greater losses than us and I certainly don't want to discount others' losses compared to ours.  We have great insurance to cover all of our losses and we are definitely fortunate and thankful to have escaped any injuries.  But we do get lots of questions about our particular situation, so here's a general summary.  Our condo suffered mostly water damage with all of the furniture lost in the living room, master bedroom, and dining area.  The roof has finally been replaced and about half of the the inside is gutted awaiting insurance approval and funding for the contractors to move ahead.  20 of the 36 units in our building have damage.  Some of the water damage went all the way down through the building to the bottom floor.   All of our hardwood and tile floors will have to be replaced.  All of the contents had to be packed and moved into storage for the reconstruction process.  We recently finished most of the furniture shopping and our contractor says he hopes to have us back in by the end of August.   Below is part of our condo as she sits today.

Our Dodge Ram truck was totaled and that is a real heart-breaker since she had only 120K miles and lots more left in her - loved my truck.  Every panel on it had some damage, plus some windows and lights.  Even though they are very handy and nice to have, we decided we really no longer "need" a truck, so we bought a Volkswagon Tiguan, their crossover SUV.  Never owned a VW before, but so far we are really impressed. Our car, a Lincoln MKZ, had about 20 dented and other damaged areas that had to be repaired and then got a complete new paint job.  After 2 weeks in the shop, she looks really nice again - kudos to Adam's Body Shop in Rogersville, AL.

"Help Me Rhonda" is a tough old boat and actually fared very well from a structural standpoint.  She was in a real tangled mess for a few days but our new marina owners are well-equipped with barges and cranes and had her free in about 5 days.  I believe another reason she fared so well is because our neighbor on our starboard side had his 35' Carver at a different location when the tornado hit, and as the docks collapsed and moved around, that extra space adjacent to us allowed some extra room for our boat!  In the pic below, you can see that HMR is at about a 45 degree angle to the main walkway behind her with the bow pretty much in the area of the empty adjacent slip.  The boat on her left, Ark Royal, was totaled.

The view from our flybridge.

We were very impressed with Boat US - they had two of their TowBoat US franchises on site the next morning with a large crew, several boats, and a mobile office to assist the marina operator with clearing up the mess and being available for things like fuel spills and sinking boats.  Here is HMR getting towed from the wreckage by TowBoat US and then later about 16 miles upriver to the closest haulout facility to check for underwater damage.  In the background on the hill is a county park that was beautiful with hundreds of massive hardwood trees.  I would guess that at least 90% of those are now gone. 

HMR fared very well at the haulout.  There were only about 5 small damaged areas under water that were attributable to the tornado but certainly no significant holes or damage to any of the running gear.

However, the cosmetic damages above the waterline were significant, at least in terms of "dollars" - nothing on a boat is inexpensive.  Hand rails and stanchions were bent, isinglass must be replaced, lots of hull and exterior scratches, assorted losses like the TV antenna, remote spotlight, etc..  Our boat insurance is with Markel and they have been fabulous!  They had an adjuster on site at the haulout.  He and I, along with the service yard, worked together to agree on reasonable cost adjustments, and we already have the check in hand with work scheduled to begin in mid-July.  The boat runs fine and we asked to keep her in the water until after July 4th so we could get a little boating in before the really hot summer temps kick in and it has also allowed me to continue work on my project of glassing in the flybridge.  By the way, the sections of glass I had already installed held up to the storm just fine except for a few scratches on the front windows from flying debris. The flybridge and aft deck hardtops were significant factors in preventing major damage to the boat.  Lots of the damage to the other boats in the marina was due to their upper structures being mostly rails, canvas, and isinglass, offering very little structural support that could withstand the high winds and dock structures and debris collapsing and flying everywhere.

In the meantime, we are temporarily housed by State Farm at the Wheeler State Park Lodge and Marina. It is the perfect location - about 10 miles away from the condo so we can keep a quick check on things there, typical state park amenities like walking trails and swimming pool, has a great dining room for meals any time of day, and HMR is docked right outside our back door.

The transient docks where we are located have lots of activity on the weekends which is always interesting and "Help Me Rhonda" has some pretty cool neighbors from time to time!  "Sensation" is about 100 feet long, a Westport based in Bimini and enroute to Knoxville, TN - kind of puts a boat's size in perspective, huh!

So, all in all, we are fine, just inconvenienced more than anything, and very blessed to remain safe throughout the tornado.  The question I posed earlier has definitely taken a different perspective now.  What are the chances we will actually be hit by a tornado?  Apparently pretty good!!!!

I could show you all kinds of pictures of destruction throughout our Bay Hill Village and surrounding areas - it looks just like the news footage you see after every tornado and it is very heartbreaking and humbling to witness first-hand.  There have been several storms on the news since we experienced ours and I immediately now think - "well, I know what those folks are going through and the long road they have ahead of them."  It really is a big deal, so if you get a chance to help in the future in areas that might be close to you, I encourage you to take that opportunity.  The community response here has been unbelievable - we are so proud and fortunate to live in this part of the country where neighbors and communities really do care.  There was no theft or criminal activity afterwards and it's also nice to live in an area where everybody has a truck and a chainsaw! Well, almost everybody has a truck. :(

No comments: