Wild Weather Survivors
When nature takes a walk on the wild side, we realize how prepared we really are – or aren’t. Three families share their stories as well as what they’ve learned as they’ve recovered from their disastrous weather encounters.
Jack McDonald had been settled in his little corner of Ellensburg, Washington, for 17 years with his wife, their horses, their dogs and “the coolest gang of cats you ever saw,” he says. You might not think of the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest as at risk for wildfires, but they were on the edge of open range and had come close in the past.
On August 13, 2012, his wife called. She could see the smoke and said, "We gotta get out of here.” Twenty minutes later the horses were loaded in a trailer and their dogs were in her car. He could see the fire in the distance. “The winds were horrendous – 60 miles per hour across the ridge – but it looked like it might miss us,” he recalled.
McDonald put the cats in their double-wide mobile home and was giving his wife a hand with the horses when he heard that the fire was spreading – and had changed course. “I came back up to my ranch, and it was clear that my house was in danger. I was going to go get the cats, but the fire chief stopped me. The fire had already swept in.”
The McDonalds’ home burned down to the crawlspace, leaving nothing but ash. “Glassware and cookware had melted into puddles,” Jack recalls. “We recovered nothing”
They began replacing their belongings as soon as they could. That’s when insult added to injury. “I bought the minimum amount [of insurance] I could get, trying to save money,” McDonald admits. They’re living in a smaller rental now. “We had to cut back on a lot of things, like buying used furniture. I don’t mind used furniture, that’s not the point. What makes me sick is thinking of what’s irreplaceable.”
What To Do:
Wildfires can’t be predicted the way hurricanes or blizzards can. David Miskus, a drought-monitoring meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says overall, we’re expecting more intense dry spells, more warm spells. The closer your home is to the range or the brush, the more at risk you are.
- Clear away brush. It's a fire hazard. Instead of watering to maintain lush green areas, make sure to remove brush.
- Gravel is your friend. Create a buffer zone between your home and potential fires with strategically placed gravel and other rock.
- Don’t light fires during a burning ban. Sounds obvious – and yet again and again, wildfires begin when someone does this.
Don Frank was sitting in his law office on the ninth floor of a building in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts. This particular day several years ago started out hot and sunny. But it was turning peculiar. The view out his window was Frank’s first clue.
“Way out over the Berkshires I saw this cloud,” Frank remembers. “It was moving quickly. My office mates turned on the radio. We heard there was a crazy tornado situation coming through Massachusetts, but somehow the idea of being affected by a tornado seemed implausible.”
After all, tornadoes happen in big-sky and prairie country, and in the South - not in New England!
“I could see what was now clearly a tornado forming. It was coming right over the river, which is a block and a half from my office,” Frank recalls. “I still wasn’t worried, because we all know tornadoes never affect people in Springfield. I thought it might knock down power lines, and if I end up stuck someplace, I’d rather it be home.’”
What Frank did next was the opposite of what you should do during a tornado warning. He got into his car. He even offered his office mate a ride. “As we drove out of the parking lot, we came into very, very high winds – but I was still pretty sure nothing bad would happen to me!”
But bad things happen to everyone, no matter where they live, right when they least expect it.
“The tornado went up and over my car,” Frank says. “In a second my car was completely engulfed in debris. My office mate sort of slid down in her seat. I shut my eyes, and at that moment I heard a giant kaboom! My back window pulled out with the pressure differential. Stuff was blowing into my car. As fast as the tornado hit – literally three seconds – it left.”
Frank saw a steel girder from a building lying across the street about 20 feet from his car. He counts himself incredibly fortunate – he was unhurt and was even able to repair his car. But something shifted for him that day. After he got home he tried to shrug off the events of the afternoon and met some friends for a bike ride.
“We were just rolling out on our bikes when that same freaky tornado-like wind blew,” he says. “I was obviously reliving the trauma. Suddenly, I had barely enough strength to bike home.” He no longer operates under the assumption that bad things couldn’t happen to him.
What To Do:
Tornadoes can happen almost anywhere – even in New England. Tornadoes are hard to predict, and there is often too little time to get out of their way. Here are some wise precautions you can take.
- Get a good storm door. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has identified certain storm doors that can withstand 250-mile-per-hour winds. If you live in Tornado Alley - from the Rockies to Appalachians - install one of those.
- Strengthen your garage. A garage door can be especially vulnerable during high winds. If your garage is attached, that spells trouble for your whole house. A reinforced, windowless door is your best bet. You also can install vertical bracing that helps to reinforce the door.
- Secure your windows. If you’ve heard you should open windows during a tornado, you’ve heard wrong. Instead, investigate DIY systems that clip plywood to your windows – no nailing necessary.
- Consider installing a safe room. If you live in an area prone to tornadoes, this might be the best move you can make. It won’t protect your home but will protect you and your family – and that’s what’s truly irreplaceable.
Patrick and Tammy Stewart's cross country move was wrenching. "We were leaving our first home. We had bought as a fixer-upper and I literally painted every single inch of every single wall,” Tammy says. “It was our first house, and we loved it.” But career opportunities beckoned, so in January 2010 the Stewarts rented out their beloved east coast home and drove across country to California.
Almost two years later, when they were between tenants, Tammy noticed news reports predicting a particularly bad East Coast storm. The Stewarts had several 70 year old trees on their property and feared something could go awry.
Sure enough, the morning the storm made landfall, Tammy got an email from her old neighbor. Tammy recalls the subject line said, "It’s not too bad!” Attached was a photo of a tree that had fallen. The neig
hbor described it tipping in slow-motion, right into the house.
The Stewarts panicked. “We were 3,000 miles away, and this was an emergency," Tammy recalls. "What were we going to do? We had to get the tree off the house to prevent further damage..and new tenants were arriving in just two days! The first thing we did was call State Farm, then the tree guy.”
Acting quickly, the Stewarts’ agent assessed the damage. The tree was chopped up and hauled away. A contractor came out to make sure the house was structurally sound. Thankfully, it was. The Stewarts were lucky. Really lucky because, as Tammy admits, they didn’t really know what was insured.
“We got the insurance we were supposed to have as property owners. We didn’t know what was actually in our policy,” she says, “What was covered, what wasn’t. I didn’t even know what our deductible was!”
Tammy is glad the event forced her and Patrick to become more informed. That tends to be the case for a lot of people. “You get what you’re supposed to get with the thought that nothing will really happen," Tammy said. "It was eye-opening. We were so lucky we had no flooding, because I know now we weren’t covered for that.”
In the midst of the hassle, the Stewarts haven’t lost sight of the silver linings. “We had never exercised our policy,” she says. “With State Farm it went really smoothly - even with us in California. We were surprised too, given the damage back [on the East Coast], that our relatively small claim was handled so quickly.”
What To Do:
Hurricanes and strong storms pack a major punch. It’s important to be prepared. As with any dangerous storm or peril, listen to and react appropriately to evacuation and/or safety messages delivered by local weather and law enforcement authorities.
- Prepare for high winds. Add window protection and reinforce entry and garage doors. Pull all lawn furniture, planters and garbage cans inside. Anything not tied down is a potential projectile.
- Stock up. Make sure you’ve got batteries, flashlights, and enough water and nonperishable food to last a few days. Fill large containers with water for washing and flushing, and gas up your vehicles.
- Look into flood insurance. If you don’t live in a floodplain, chances are you’re not covered for flooding. Most flood insurance is provided by the National Flood Insurance Program, not covered under standard homeowners policies.