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House attacked by tornado

Original title.

4/16: “House hit by tornado.” A friend, whose first language is Korean, named it an “attack” on our house on Friday. Brilliant phrases come often to those who need search for words more assiduously than others. Attack is immediate, vivid, and violent.

Original post.

All OK, cats included. Checked into hotel for tonight. Calling family now. Will update later.

Updates (most recent listed at bottom).

Thursday, 13 April, soon after original post. Following is the text of an e-mail I sent to my family tonight. I am writing from the hotel into which we are checked in.

Dear family and friends:

I apologize for the mass e-mail, but this is the most efficient way to contact a lot of people very quickly. I’ve got plaster in my hair and in my nose, a memory of shattering windows, and I think I will not sleep tonight: a tornado hit our town, then our block, then our house tonight.

We are all, cats included, okay.

We were all very scared. It was a normal Thursday evening. We had watched Smallville. We were keeping an eye on the weather, however, because there were severe storms bearing down on us with reports of baseball hail. Usually, weather of the sort passes north of Iowa City, so we were not worried, but we were not without precaution. I put on shoes, for example, and pants. We were debating whether to put our two cats in their carriers, just in case, but then about 8.40 (or so—I didn’t put on my watch), the wind picked up. In fact, the Venetian blinds were being sucked out of the house. The basement in our house is another apartment, not accessible by us; the only place we could go was downstairs, beside the stairs, to the one wall that holds up the whole south end of the house. We were next to or outside door, in fact. We were going there when the power shut off, and we were there when that telltale sound of windows shattering and Niagara Falls falling combined over our heads. I don’t remember what Kathy or either of us said to each other while it was going on: I only remember the feeling of the wall to my back being shaken like it was the wall of a cardboard box. It lasted thirty seconds, tops, and was probably not even that long. But when it was done, there were holes in the plaster. A painting we hung on the wall in our bedroom, blown across the room; all windows, broken; houseplants, tossed across rooms; when we opened the door outside, right next to where we had cowered—porch, gone.

We searched and found our cats and pulled them out of their hiding places; we grabbed a change of clothes, then we walked down our devastated block, to the undevastated next block, to the undamaged next, until we made it downtown and to the Sheraton, where we are staying tonight.

More than that, if you watch the news, you might already know better than me. For now, all I can say is that we’re okay.

Friday, 14 April, 10.30p; Also, wanted—photo annotations.

We can’t upload our photos yet, and I haven’t had much time to look at what’s available online but we took some time just a while ago to see what’s available online. See the comments for some small annotations. Still, I’d like to enlist your help. If you have time, know our house (Ahem, Laura!), and know IC, then would you please, in the comments, please link to the best photos you’ve seen? Or, if you don’t know our house but are curious about our relation to the shot, then do the same. Photos from the Gazette and the Press-Citizen are the same because they are Gannett fare. We hope to have ours up soon. Aerial photos show that the tornado passed between our house and our neighbor’s.

Wednesday, 19 April, 6:30p.

924 Iowa Avenue This will be my last addition to this post—anything else I add will be in the comments—but for its sake I’m republishing it as if it were new.

There is no such thing as an accurate description of experience. We approximate once, we approximate twice, we approximate three times, and every time we come up with something a little different to describe what it is we’ve seen, or done, or known. It’s why confession is necessary: when we open our mouths, we hardly know what it is we feel. We speak to discover what we first feel, and in speaking we peel back layer upon layer. Moreover, when we speak, we learn words anew, and so we add layer upon layer upon layer to the layers we’re peeling back. So it is that, almost a week after the tornado, after telling the story over and over again, after dissecting Thursday night and all that’s happened since, then putting it all in a bucket of formaldehyde to pull out tomorrow and the next day, I can say a few more things about the storm.1

My tornado didn’t sound like anything—not a train, not a jet engine. I admit this is a conscious choice in one sense: we use the industrial metaphor because only modern man has created something so large as to seem menacing, loud, and terrifying. But I might as well say it sounds like a dragline, a machine far more destructive than any passenger-carrier, as a train. Rather, my tornado’s sound is natural. Only the sky can create that drop in pressure that every cell of your body feels; only this earth fabricates a thing which blows your curtains on one side of the house and sucks them out the other; only nature is amoral enough to be so indiscriminate (although, admittedly, modern warfare comes close). My tornado is more than a sound; it’s a feeling in the hairs on my neck. What I remember most, though, is the wall I leaned against shuddering like cardboard. That was the one moment I doubted that where we hid was safe.

After it was over, adrenaline lasted about 45 minutes, long enough for us to gather our cats and clothes and make it to the Sheraton downtown. I wasn’t entirely sane, but I didn’t panic. I kept setting for us (me) small lists of things to do. “We’ll go downtown, and we’ll find a telephone, and we’ll call…,” I’d say, then when our calls didn’t go through, I would change the list slightly. Some did panic: students on our block ran (perhaps drunkenly) from gas leaks. Others wandered from house to house “helping” those who needed it. No doubt they found someone they could pull out of a house, but when I tried to talk to them, they looked past me, and they heard nothing I said. They were in many ways like me: singleminded to the nth degree and to the exclusion of all. Rescuers, I suspect, are better when they come from outside.

At the Sheraton, though, I shut down. I remember holding a telephone book in my hand—we were trying to call our landlord—and I lost all language. I couldn’t count the alphabet. My aphasia didn’t last long—after all, I wrote the e-mail above an hour later—but it was frightening in itself.

There have been some controversies in town since Thursday, much of it with regard to sightseers. There were many. Friday morning was a constant stream of people walking down the street; even today when people drive through, they drive crooked because they can’t help but stare. I said what I think about it at Laura’s library blog. Something like this brings out the best and the worst in people. I have been humbled by the volunteers I’ve seen and by the offers of help we’ve received and by the concern that’s been shown. A man we met at the Sheraton Friday night offered us his home; a woman at the market talked to us at length about what we had experienced; my minister and his wife, a youth group from another church, and others helped clean up our yard; my dad’s church even took up a special collection for us! None of this we deserve, and even less do we deserve the friends with whom we are staying now. They have been patient and generous with their time and their home. How we will ever repay them I do not know. All we can truly do in response is to make sure that we never withhold their grace when we have the chance to offer it to someone else.

There’s much more to say, some profound, most not. Insurance agents totaled out our car today. We’ll have some of it repaired, and the rest we’ll live with. By actuarial standards, it isn’t worth enough to merit complete repair, nor, however, is it worth enough to buy another car as good as it is. Our electricity is within hours of being hooked up, but we don’t know about gas. Regardless, we may be back in our apartment by the weekend—or Kathy may, anyway, since I’m flying out for the job interview Saturday. But here is where I’ll finish: our bathroom window was shattered, perhaps by a brick from the neighbor’s house. It now has a board over the frame that blocks all light, so until the power’s on, it’ll be like night in that room. But today we stopped by the house, and I noticed something bittersweet. Between the broken panes two house finches are building a nest. When the window people come to replace the windows that nest will be cleared out, of course, but meanwhile, perhaps it’s enough to know that from the broken shards of a house someone already is rebuilding.

1 This, more than anything, is why I decided just to revise and add to this post over and over again rather than add one post after another.



were you in the house when it hit?

glad you are ok.

Yes! Cowering! Under the stairs!

FYI. I am writing from a hotel.

now everyone knows that greg doesn’t normally wear pants.

we survived a tornado hitting our house, and we’re both distracted by the fact that we didn’t think to lock the door when we left. isn’t that crazy? this is a sleepy college town after all, not a huge chance of looting (at least not right away)...hopefully we’ll be able to go over tomorrow to see what’s what if they get the power lines picked up off of the sidewalks by then…

a batch of photos

We left our car with a branch next to it and the trunk wide open (opened by the storm). Probably it will drive. Better than those whose cars were turned upside down. But I really wish I had closed the trunk.

Kathy made pasta for lunch tomorrow. There’s a whole pound of it, with a good brocolli sauce, in our now-warming refrigerator. I really wish I had brought the pasta.

Wow, stunning how life can turn upside down like that. Best wishes for you and Kathy getting back on your feet, and thank goodness everyone is ok.

What’s stunning is the ends to which Iowa City will go to get us to leave. Damnit.

Good news: car drives, though the trunk won’t close and we’ve a flat, which is being fixed now (and is why I’m online while it’s fixed). Landlord is putting up boards and tarps, chainsaws are busy as beavers. We’ve a place to stay. Our stuff is mostly undamaged—dirty with plaster and glass, but undamaged. Most people who were knocked out of their homes were students, including one whole sorority—this is actually good because there’s some significant support for them, and the death of their stuff is not the death of a lifetime's accumulation of it: for them it's stuff, not memory, that is lost.

Bad news: Our block is trashed—whole floors stripped off of old houses and 1970s apartment buildings. Traffic is shit in town because the tornado hit several of the major thoroughfares. There’s no telling whether or where we’ll be able to move soon. That we don’t own our property in this place makes this especially infuriating: I, and I think K, too, feel completely powerless.

Glad to hear you’ve found a place to stay—my mother notes that her offer still stands, should you or anyone else need lodging at some point.

It’s very odd to be so far from Iowa at the moment. I spent a good part of the morning reading news reports and looking at pictures of things that used to be there.

My best to you all.

Photo link.

Note the house with the green roof on the right side of the avenue. Ours is the house immediately closest to the camera. Note that the debris trail as it passes between our house and the next one closest.

Photo link 2.

Again, orient yourself to the green roof. This one is good for identifying when the photo was taken. We drove our car out at about 9.40a, and our car is the one in front of the green house. You can just see the open trunk. Again, though, ours is the pink house. Portions of the porch are in the front yard; other parts of it are in the back yard; other parts in our neighbor’s back yard. Our landlord said that people brought pieces of the porch up to the house all day—everyone recognized it because it was the only pink and purple porch on the block.

Photo 3.

The helicopter shots are good for perspective, but they’re terrible for perspective, too. Most important is the woman who lost her apartment, which also looks down upon ours (pink house, background far left). Also note our neighbor to the right. She told us that it wasn’t until she saw her house in the newspaper, in this photo, that she realized how bad it looked. Theirs was a place loved, especially the back yard, which was a wonderland for birds and squirrels and, if they had had them, for gnomes. Much to their credit, no gnomes, but a pondful of carp. One of the bricks from their house was thrown through one of our windows. Let that also show how lucky we were that it was only one brick through only one of our windows.

holy cow manure batman!!! sorry, that should read holy hurricane bataman!!!

that’s really close.

when we lived in san jose, costa rica, a rare tornado tore through our neighborhood and was on a direct path for our house. it crossed the wooded area in front of our house, got to the street and rather than crossing it, it turned around and went out the way it came in.

i was 8 or so, and it was cool. this, though, is messed up!

again, very glad you are well. it must still be quite surreal.

holy smithereens!!!

are you sure you don’t live in a trailer park?

(Whistles in appreciation) Man, you guys really had a mini-Katrina on your block.

17: That house is directly across the street from us. I used to deliver newspapers to the 3rd floor so prominently displayed there.

15: That photo was taken yesterday afternoon, after landlord had the tarps put up. We didn’t get back until late afternoon, 3ish, when most of that work was done and the insurance adjustor was there. It looks like our neighbors will probably have to tear it all down. Theirs was a very interesting house, and it will be sad to see it gone.

We’re about to head to the post office to find out what will be up with our mail, then off to the cleanup. Busy day today!

I’m glad you made it through ok. Here are some shots my friend Ryan took.

HTML link doesn’t show. Here it is: Ryan Lee's photos.

My God.

For those who don’t know, I lived in the basement apartment of the house where Kathy and Greg live—or lived until recent calamitous events—about eight years ago, in the late summer and fall of 1998, right after I graduated from college.

Last night I was talking to my friend Felicia, who lives in Miami and has been through many a hurricane, including Andrew, which hit shortly after she started college in NY. It is indescribably strange to be so far away from a place I know so well and to look at pictures and realize that so many of the places I knew are gone, or mangled almost beyond recognition. I guess I said all this before, but it’s still true.

I walked around in kind of a daze yesterday, telling people that my hometown had been hit by a tornado, but since we’re 1200 miles away from IC, it of course didn’t have much of an impact on them.

My oldest friend’s grandmother lives in an apartment building next to St. Patrick’s, the church that lost its roof—you can see the church and a bit of the apartment building wall here (thanks Ryan, noted above). Her car was totaled by a tree and the apartment is a bit of a wreck, but she’s okay.

There is, after all, much to be thankful for.

There certainly is a lot to be thankful for, and it’s amazing that no one was even seriously hurt, let alone killed.

LC, we stopped at St. Patrick’s today and the place is destroyed. We took a picture of it (although I know pics of it have shown up nationally); it looks like it was bombed.

Clean-up went really well this morning. Most of the debris from people’s lawns was in the median by noon. They’re working on putting power lines and poles back up now. It’ll take some work to get the inside of our apartment livable (and breatheable), but we made a small dent today thanks to a couple of our friends here.

Greg’s going to be famous in Des Moines, where he’ll be on the evening or night news talking to a reporter about the tornado experience (“fear and fear and fear..”).

Thanks for your good wishes, everyone. Hopefully Greg will have our photos up on Flickr soon.

Happy Easter! :)

1) No transcript that I’ve seen of my interview.

2) I’ve been having trouble uploading photos to my flickr account, but keep checking back there: I’m trying to get them on now. Keep checking back, too: I don’t have time to caption them now, but as I get the chance, I’ll add to what I can. The photo titles are by date and time, then a brief description. Most photos are described in relation to our house (northwest from, east, etc.)

PS. All the pictures up now are of Friday. There are several further pics from Saturday forthcoming, but I’m not sure when.

very glad you guys are ok. did you know a pic of your house (one of the ones you linked to earlier) was also in the NY Times?

We just heard of the NYT photo tonight—that one and the photo of the church Thursday night will go down as the two most memorable, I think.

by the way, i didn’t mean to link twice to the same picture. i was just in a hurry and didn’t pay attention the fact that the various pics i thought i was linking to i wasn’t.

the question, is that you at the door? related to number 16 or 17, where a guy with a messenger bag was standing at the door and a girl beside him. i didn’t think it you, but who knows.

anyway, when do you fly up and out to big sky country?

so, unless you changed from white t-shirt to sexy black muscle t, it most definitely was not you

Well, the images you’re comparing were taken on separate days, so it’s likely I would have changed, but in this case, it doesn’t matter. Sorry I didn’t answer your question before. The guy in the previous photo (16 or 17) is not me.

This reporter was part of the weekend crew and for that reason had no cameraman. She was from WOI in Des Moines and did a lot of her story from in front of our house. I learned she only moved to Iowa from Boston three months ago. Our conversation before the interview went something like this:

She: You don’t hear about stuff like this happening in big cities.

Me: That’s right. Except Nashville.

She: And St. Louis.

Me: I think Kansas City was hit pretty bad by a tornado.

She: Right. I guess it happens to those cities.

Me: Yeah.

She was also late to the cleanup, after most of the heavy lifting was finished. but she needed action shots. I volunteered to sweep the porch as if I were actually doing work. Then she took shots of all those people sitting on the curb. I don’t know whether her story aired or not; I hope it turned out well for her.

I fly out Saturday afternoon. Still got interview clothes to buy, a haircut to get, and K’s forcing me to stop worrying about cleaning tornado dust. It’s really hard, but she’s right. Sigh. I must buckle down into question-prep mode for the rest of the week.

greg, there’s no real need to apologize. i wasn’t expecting an answer. you’ve got your hands rather quite full at the moment. and no idea as to which picture i was referencing.

What I’ve got my hands of full this morning is a sadness of impending boredom: back to the 5th grade essays today on too little sleep! If there’s any job that will make me nod off, though…

Our last best pictures are up at flickr. This time with captions! As I get the chance, I’ll still be adding captions to the previous ones.

Make that, “latest.” There’ll be some more to come, including one of the heinous new street lamp in our yard…

Captions are up. Quick update to this post forthcoming.

you’ve still got a few more months of tornado blogging before we stop reading. :)

I’ve noticed most homeless people tend to be of a one-track mind. It’s all, “Boo-hoo, I don’t have a place to lay my weary head!”

God, I hope I’m not tornado blogging in a month, except in a more general, community sense. My intention is to be moving blogging by then…

we are all hoping that you will be moving blogging by then…

Moving blogging, of a sort (though not the same move as 41 & 42 speak of): Tonight we are spending our first night at home in 2 weeks! YAY!

Turns out that our landlady was slow to realize the gas was turned off and didn’t get it inspected ‘til way too late. Then, when she did, they found a leak, and that took 3 days to fix—long enough to drive the patience of our basement neighbors past breaking: they are moving out this weekend. (And on the first floor, the pit bull owner got arrested and, apparently, will be in jail for “a while”!)

(How patient our friends have been with us. We bought them BVS Season 3. Our thanks will only ever be partial.)

I’ll take and post current photos of the block this weekend. It’s quite a change. Contractors are all over this place. Point of fact: It looks like IC won’t get any FEMA assistance because too many structures were too well insured.

What’s going to happen to the pit bull?

I wish I knew. We haven’t seen her roommate but once or twice, even. The two were a shady pair to begin with. Still, I assume he’s being taken care of somewhere. Even if she weren’t in jail, this wouldn’t be a good place for a big dog. Backyard has no fence, and there’s still shards of glass large and small all over.

Tonight is laundry night. Specifically, a gazillion loads of laundry night. All the clothes and bedding and blankets and napkins and towels we had that got coated in insulation, plaster dust, paint chips, glass, and all else that constitutes the remains of our porch and the houses across the street will be fed into the machines at Laundromania. It’s all been in plastic bags until now, waiting for us to dedicate several hours to the tedium of the wash.

oh, pleeze, it wasn’t that bad.

True. Much easier than I thought it would be. It certainly could have been much worse:

I had then to stand at a bench and wash during the greater part of the night, or pick wool and cotton; and often I have dropped down overcome by sleep and fatigue, till roused from a state of stupor by the whip, and forced to start up to my tasks.

Here I wanted to be done tornado blogging.

Did you know that when 1/3 of your windows have been broken, it’s next to impossible to get all the glass out of your hallway carpet?

Also, life must go on: Today, our landlady is showing our apartment, giant hole in the wall and broken windows or not, to prospective tenants.

We, meanwhile, will be buying shades to cover the windows we do have from the ceaseless nighttime brilliance of the streetlamp the city gave us.

I’ll take some time today to snap some pics.

wooo! more tornado porn!

if only it were that tantalizing…

For those who find porn tantalizing, I suppose. It’s not nearly as tantalizing as the $120 our landlady has jacked the rent up by for the next tenants (they took it, by the way).

The lies our landlady told in the rent-pitch:

  1. It’s a 3-bedroom apartment. (It’s a 2-bedroom apartment with a windowed, upstairs back porch—which we use as a dining/plant room.)
    1. The back porch can be used as a bedroom because it has a heat register in it. (In fact, it’s butt cold in the winter.)
  2. The kitchen is big enough to eat in. (If your last name happens to be “Smurf,” perhaps.)
  3. Street parking is easy. (Street parking is almost as annoying as having no washer/dryer.)
  4. Everything will be fixed by August. (Not if the speed at which she got the gas fixed is any indication…)

Of course, none of those are anything compared to what she told our basement neighbors after the tornado:

“If you want, you can move out.”

She sued them when they took her up on it.

wow, what a babe.
what’s the news from out west?

nada, yet.