I never thought that I would find myself in an actual tornado, but it happened on September 1st, 2021 when an EF-2 tornado hit our neighborhood in Fort Washington, PA.
A tornado was something that very rarely happened around here. However, over the past year or two a severe storm warning and/or tornado watch has been coming up on the phone alert system at least once every 2-3 months. You sort of get to the point where you think, oh that again, it’s fine. But it’s important to know the difference between a tornado watch and a warning and if you learn nothing else, remember this. If you get a tornado watch alert it means favorable conditions exist that one ‘could’ form. If you get a tornado WARNING it means that one has actually formed close to you. Luckily we knew the difference, so we went to the basement when we saw the warning come up on our phones. Although I sort of knew what it meant, I definitely didn’t realize that it was about to ACTUALLY happen.
Dave had just gotten home from work [thank god] and we were watching the show Flight Attendant for the first time when the tornado warning alert came to our phones. We decided to bring the laptop downstairs and continued to watch the show. On the way downstairs Dave looked out the stairwell side windows and said, “you gotta see this, the trees are crazy.” I stayed in the basement and said ‘please just come downstairs.’ Or maybe I said something a little more forceful, haha. I honestly don’t remember.
We resumed watching the show (which is really great by the way) and after a minute or two I paused it, because you could hear something going on. Then the electric did that wonky thing that it does right before it’s about to go out. And then the sound of a tornado started to come closer. First it was like a dim sound that is typical of wind during a storm, but then it just started that freight train sound. Everyone always says a tornado sounds like a freight train and they are right. I stayed pretty calm in the beginning, but then a tree fell and hit the house which you could both hear and feel. Our basement is sort of soundproofed (it’s also Dave’s band practice space and recording studio), so the sound was a little muffled, but you could still very much hear and feel it.
After the tree hit I started to have a panic attack. I’ve had them before, or at least what I thought was one at the time, but this one was WAY more severe. I was breathing REALLY heavy and I couldn’t walk or stand and my hands were stuck in one position. My thumbs were like pressed into my palms and none of my fingers would move. It was like an energy was just pulsating through my body and I could not stop it. My mind was actually working, but my body was not. I couldn’t stand and was just ‘walking’ around on my knees trying to figure out what the fuck to do. I tried to recall everything that I learned through therapy over the past couple of years to stop it. I have anxiety and therapy helped immensely with that and life in general. Over the last 3 years I’ve had a deep dive into therapy and reading lots of books on presence, being in the moment, not giving a shit about some (many) things, you only control your reaction to things not the things, etc, etc, etc… Nothing that I tried to do on my own helped. Then I remembered hearing about breathing together to regulate your nervous system. It was obvious that my body was hijacked by emotion and I needed something to knock it out. So I made Dave stop what he was doing and focus just on me and breathing. No other distractions, just hold me and breathe so I can make my nervous system chill the fuck out. It worked. After several minutes I could finally move my hands and breathe normally. It took several more minutes to be able to walk. It was crazy. Absolutely crazy.
The tree that fell on our house was my favorite tree, a huge locust tree that shades a big portion of our side yard. It destroyed the side deck and landed on the roof, blasting through a skylight in the kitchen. It was pouring rain into the kitchen while I was having a panic attack. In case you aren’t aware, Dave becomes a superhero in stressful situations. He (much to my dismay and alternate plan to just tarp the inside of the kitchen so the water went down the drain), chainsawed the tree away so that he could tarp it and prevent further damage. He did this just after the tornado (and panic attack) when there was a lull in the storm. Just when he finished covering it with three tarps (each of which had a goddamn hole) another huge downpour started. My sink plan probably would have failed, but I didn’t want him to get hurt. It’s really impossible to adequately explain what he did, but the tree fell onto the house and also covered the ladder that he had to climb to get up there. If you know Dave you know that he trips over nothing. Seriously, there will be nothing on a side walk and he will just trip. But during a tornado, hell yes, he will bound up a ladder covered in a tree to chainsaw away said tree covering the roof and then tarp a broken skylight.
Meanwhile I was just running around doing things, but feeling like I was doing nothing. I put Winnie in the downstairs basement bathroom since there was glass everywhere. Basically I would do something and then immediately think this is the dumbest thing I could be doing and try to figure out what to do next. I ran around trying to make go bags, because I was convinced we were going to have to leave. This all happened in the beginning of the storm watch window (around 5:50 pm) and the storm was supposed to last until 11 pm. So I just kept thinking that the side of the house was going to collapse, or more trees would fall on the house, and we would have to leave. I kept thinking of all of the worst things that would happen. Catastrophising as my therapist would say and she would be right. It was also getting dark so I had to get candles, flashlights, etc… I cut myself on the glass, so was bleeding everywhere. It wasn’t a bad cut at all, but it was on my right hand that was doing everything. I didn’t bandage it until I realized that I was bleeding everywhere. Geez. It was nuts.
We put a bucket under the three-layer-but-they-all-have-holes tarps to catch the rain that got through the skylight and then had to empty it every hour. Overall it’s really amazing that we didn’t have more damage. We were on the very edge of the tornado and three blocks away ALL of the trees fell and destroyed houses. A house 3 away is uninhabitable, because a huge tree fell on it and made huge holes in the roof and started an electrical fire that was luckily put out by the fire. And most of the houses 3 blocks away are severely damaged and uninhabitable.
It’s really so crazy and you can’t comprehend it unless you see it. The area 3 blocks away is called Elliger Park and we would walk Winnie through each day, because it was SO beautiful due to being lined by gigantic sycamore trees. Now they’re all gone. There is an expanse of 1-1.5 blocks wide where every single tree was ripped out or in half. Before, due to the huge amount of old growth trees, you couldn’t even see 2 houses down the street and now you can see through 3 blocks.
Another tree in the front ripped in half and landed on my car, totaling it. It also fell across the driveway so we couldn’t even get Dave’s car out. Our friends came to the rescue with chainsaws.
I would like to send a huge thanks to our friends and family for helping us to clean up. We are making our way through it all and it’s going to be a long process. Our insurance company is being really terrible and the amount they gave us to fix the house is actually insulting.
We are hoping to at least get the damaged roof off this week. All of the rest of the repairs have to wait until we get agreement with the insurance company, so wish us luck!
P.s. I don’t recommend Liberty Mutual so if you have them for home insurance, switch. We had to get an independent adjuster and from what we hear all of it will take a lot of time. I’ll let you know how the process goes.
P.s.s. I am sad about all of the tree loss, but I am excited to plan new garden areas areas for sun.