After the Tornado, a Blur of Kindness, Tacos, and Trips to Home Depot

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An aerial drone shot of Clem Spalding's home after the February 2017 tornado shows blue tarps he used to cover up parts of his missing roof and garage.

Courtesy / Robert Amador

An aerial drone shot of Clem Spalding's home after the February 2017 tornado shows blue tarps he used to cover up parts of his missing roof and garage.

Tornados are a bitch. Tornados are beautiful.

On a Sunday night in February, after a long weekend of vigorous activity in the yard and elsewhere, I fell asleep hard, happy in the knowledge that a line of storms was approaching to bless my gardens with rain.

I awoke an hour later from a dead sleep to the sound of howitzers in the front yard. The lights flickered and died. “Wow! That’s some storm! I’m going to look at my new storm drain system in action!” (Yes, I know. Cheap thrills!) I grabbed a flashlight and walked out the door into the covered breezeway/patio towards the garage. After three steps, my groggy brain determined this was not a good idea. The heavy, vertical rain suddenly went 100% horizontal. So did flying debris. In the lightning flashes, I saw that there was debris everywhere, including trampolines of unknown origin, entire trees, and pieces of roof – my roof! Then, a metal garage door collapsed inward.

My brain said, “Whaaaaaaaaat?”

My now wide-awake brain and drenched body recognized that I was on a misadventure similar to the ones on which my friend, Paul White, often finds himself. I cowered behind a support column as the adventure got real. Very real. Those cannon shots were the sound of our beautiful oak trees, the neighbor’s hackberry and cypress trees exploding and being hurled into and onto the house and my car in the driveway. Nonstop lightning and thunder. A transformer 50 feet away exploded. Then the whole pole came down. The garage began to vaporize. More howitzers. Adrenal glands rather active.

Then it suddenly revved back down to vertical rain and a heavy thunderstorm. I went back inside to check on my mom. She was awake and asked me what was all over the floor. I discovered my ankle had been cut by debris and I was bleeding everywhere. Great! Now the house looks like a murder scene. After a quick patch-up (during which my sainted mother got to hear her son cuss like a sailor about a first-aid package sealed way too effectively), we went out to the breezeway to see what had happened. I called 911 to report genuine catastrophe.

Half the garage roof was gone and one wall had collapsed. Mom’s car was under beams and debris. Piles of storm junk were stacked against every fence, wall, and still-standing tree. I checked on the neighbors. Everyone was okay and as wired-up as I was. In the gloom it was difficult to tell how bad things were. Distant sirens and receding thunder. Recycling bins in the tops of trees. Other trees with no tops at all. I activated the family panic text system and called the slow-witted insurance company.

Rocky The Wonder Dog taking shelter from the tornado. In the bathtub. Like you’re supposed to. Rocky is now represented by the William Morris Agency.

Photo by Clem Spalding

Rocky The Wonder Dog taking shelter from the tornado. In the bathtub. Like you’re supposed to. Rocky is now represented by the William Morris Agency.

We searched the entire house for Rocky The Idiot Dog and finally found him in the bathtub. Maybe he’s not such an idiot.

The rest of the night was spent answering texts, checking in on neighbors, and talking to patrolling San Antonio police, fire, and Red Cross folks. Their faces betrayed the scope and severity of the tornado strike. We exchanged enthusiastic and awestruck expletives. “WTF was THAT?!?!” was our rallying cry. The first responders were all wonderful, kind, and very human. Rain, thunder, chainsaws, sirens, beeping trucks, and loud external radio traffic all night. But there was almost no info on every source my smart phone could access. I slept for less than two hours.

On Monday morning, I was up at 5 a.m. and out the door to grab post-tornado essentials: breakfast tacos, coffee, tarps, and gas chainsaw #1.

Dawn revealed a surreal tableau. Half of our house’s roof was stripped off and/or smashed. Trees uprooted, decapitated, flung into and onto houses and cars. Entire roofs gone. Telephone poles broken in half. Glass shards embedded in lumber next to my hiding place. Lawn furniture squished. Fences flattened. Vegetable garden kaput. TV crews doing live remotes around the corner on Linda Drive. (It’s never good when your street sign is featured on “Good Morning America.”) The symphony of a hundred chainsaws and scores of heavy trucks attacking the debris obstructions. The beginnings of a three-day bucket truck ballet.

Spalding's garage was severely damaged by the February 2017 tornado.

Photo by Clem Spalding

Spalding’s garage was severely damaged by the February 2017 tornado.

The next few days were a blur of debris clearing, bizarre finds, loving help, annoying contractors, tacos, stumbling insurance service, generator roars, Red Cross meals, brainless gawkers, more annoying contractors, clueless telecom providers (Restart my modem?! Really?), rumors of cannibalism, more tacos, humane officials, officious officials, blue tarping, long-overdue bonding with neighbors, media, 600 trips to Home Depot, fast food, bad food, good food, PODS, driveway dumpsters, and perfect end-of-the-day margaritas shared around the fire pit.

I jokingly asked the visiting City Councilman, Roberto Treviño, to arm us with tasers to control the contractors. He politely demurred.

We were so damn lucky. We were not seriously injured. We can still live in this house. The power returned in less than four days. We have been overwhelmed by help from family, friends, city crews, volunteers, strangers, charities, and the Lee High School football team. But just 50 yards from this house are at least six homes that are a total loss. Everything gone. Somehow, no fatalities.

Trees and other debris came down on Spalding's home during the twister.

Photo by Clem Spalding

Trees and other debris came down on Spalding’s home during the twister.

TORNADO LESSONS LEARNED:

1) You’ll have little or no warning.

2) Don’t run outside in the middle of it.

3) Your dog is smarter than you.

4) If you survive, you win!

5) Generators and chainsaws are beautiful.

6) Margaritas cure all ills.

7) Insurance will save your bacon/tofu. Eventually.

8) Angels and weasels appear out of thin air.

9) Don’t trifle with Mother Nature. Especially when she gets all EF2.

10) S–t happens.

THE REAL TORNADO LESSON:

At about 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 19, my life took a radical, involuntary turn. I was rudely interrupted by Mother Nature and taken away from my usual work and social routines. No electricity and no web access equalled no work output and no social media. Things got down to the bare essentials in a hurry. The most essential thing was the aid and comfort from my fellow humans.

First responders and city cleanup crews were unfailingly wonderful in both word and action. For all its failings, the system worked! My neighbors and I came together as never before. Nothing like an EF2 twister to break the ice: “Pardon me, but your big tree is now in my house.” Along with family and friends, we all helped each other clearing debris, sharing tips and rumors, and using margaritas for medicinal purposes.

When I got back on social media five days later, all of the poisonous playground politics there now sounded as stupid as they truly are. I now see how 95% of the raging political debates are simply irrelevant to our daily lives and are unworthy of my attention. The tornado aftermath demonstrated that age, ethnicity, sex, and all the other silly division labels simply do not matter. Nor should they, ever. What really matters is that we must share this crazy journey with everyone around us as we all strive for the same things.

The tornado spent no more than 90 seconds around us.

The perfect response was immediate.

The generator was needed for 3.5 days.

There will still be a tomato harvest in May.

The reconstruction will take several months.

The insurance claim will take several decades, I am told.

The scars to the neighborhood will last much longer.

The good memories will last forever.

One thought on “After the Tornado, a Blur of Kindness, Tacos, and Trips to Home Depot

  1. What a great story. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this account of what happened to your neighborhood. I wanted to stay away to not cause more problems for you and not be an obstruction or feed the “gawkers” distracting your neighbors. I pass on 281 and am amazed. I attended your neighborhood association meeting at Blessed Sacrament and was impressed and honored to be there.

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