To read earlier posts about the tornado, click here.
We had been asleep for a couple hours when the screams of Jeff and Darrens' pagers broke the dead silence. They had been called out every few hours all day to suspected gas leaks, auto alarms, a burn barrel on fire, etc.
Seriously, again? Would they never get decent sleep? Darren ran out of the house, Jeff stumbling out after him, trying to find his way in the dark of an unfamiliar house and the two of them were gone. Who knew what they were headed to now.
Turns out it was a grass fire, intentionally set by some fine young folk just out of town.
Because you know...the fire department hadn't been busy enough lately...
When we got up for the day around 7:30am, I updated my facebook status to say that we needed boxes...lots of them. Almost immediately a friend replied that they had something like 16 boxes and her husband would drop them off on his way to work. Jeff headed out to Tim Hortons in the vehicle he had and I said I would meet him at the house. As usual, the main street between Darren's and our house, Victoria Street/Hwy 21 was blocked to traffic. I took the longest way around possible to get to my street and when I came to the 5 Points there was an OPP directing traffic. I rolled down my window and told her I was trying to get to Park Street. She asked if I lived on that street and when I told her I did she asked to see my ID to prove it. I had to dig it out of my backpack in the back seat of Jodi's van. I told her we had people coming to help us pack up our house today. She shook her head and stated that unless people lived on that street, they weren't allowing people on it.
Well, wasn't that lovely.
I drove the block to Park St where I was met by another OPP officer. He didn't question me at all as I turned and parked beside the house. Jeff wasn't far behind me. My brother parked at The PharmaPlus across the highway and walked over, joined by his wife, lifelong friend who is the younger brother of a highschool friend of mine, and 3 other Brussels Firemen. Sheila and her husband parked at a convenience store on the next block and walked over. I was worried about how I was going to get the storage trailer onto our street if the OPP were restricting access so I approached the OPP at our corner to have a conversation. He said he had no problem allowing it on the street, but all of the other officers along Victoria Street would also have to allow it in. The trailer was coming in from out of town and would have to make it all the way down the closed road. I asked the OPP officer if he could chat with all his fellow officers along the street so that I knew they were all in agreement. He said just to tell them that he (Officer Graham) had okayed it. I called Patti and Barry who were supplying the trailer, passed on that info, and off they went to get it.
Shortly after we arrived, our neighbours across the street informed us that our cat was in the garage of the neighbours beside us. They had given him food and water and he was doing just fine. Later Jeff went over and got him and returned him to our house where he spent the day trying to avoid everyone and everything.
A friend from Goderich who was vacationing in Michigan messaged me that she had a bunch of empty totes in her shed and gave me the code to get in. Sheila's husband and I and drove across town to get them, and I was again struck at both the devastation, and the areas that were completely untouched, all within a few blocks of eachother.
I had decided we would start on the upper floor and pack it up first, since I knew without question that part of the house would need to come down, and that from there we would work our way down. Nicole, Sheila and I started packing up the dressers and everything upstairs. My birth control pills were placed directly in my hand as I was told "the last thing you need right now is to not be taking these...we're not packing them, we're putting them right in your hand..."
That's a good friend right there.
I was in my room for a bit, packing stuff up, but I couldn't focus on it. People were coming in and out, dropping by to see what they could do, offering their condolences, wanting to have a look. Jeff's cousin, her husband and their friend showed up and set right to work. His cousin had tears in her eyes and couldn't hide her shock at the state of my house. Her husband builds houses and was fairly certain ours would be condemned after the visit from the engineer. I don't even know who their friend was, but she was wonderful. Very sensitive to my needs, very discreet in her questioning and very delicate with the belongings of people she had never met, in a house she had never entered before.
Patti took charge of my kitchen and was quite happy with what she found...everything from rolos to caramels. She kept everyone's spirits high starting from the moment she pulled up to the house and got out exclaiming how she "loved what we had done with the place...nice sky light, very open concept, etc". My sister in law Nicole's brother John was one of our helpers too. He is a fireman with Mike, and he and Patti know eachother as they work in the same profession. At one point I watched as he listened to Patti share some of what she had been dealing with as a nurse for the past few days. It was good for her to be able to vent to someone who truly understood. I was glad we had 2 nurses at our place because one of our male helpers was diabetic and a few of us were worried he wouldn't properly take care of himself throughout the day.
As the help converged on our property, I began to feel guilty. We had about 25 people helping, taking charge and doing an awesome job. Others on our street were dealing with their messes alone. At one point the woman who lives two doors down came over and shyly asked my brother if she could get some help getting a couple things out of her house. Without hesitation he and the guys that had come with him for the day assisted her with what they could, entering her house from the backyard and removing those special items you can't replace.
A newscrew from CHCH came to the house and interviewed me. Jeff was actually present for that interview but they didn't film him. It was on that station's dinnerhour newscast that evening.
My brother was walking around making decisions about what was to come out of my house and what would not due to damage and at one point had called me into the living room. We were also distinguishing between what would be packed into the storage trailer and what would be packed into the vehicles and taken to Darren's house. Mike was asking me about what kids movies I wanted to bring with me and as I was going though them I saw the pieces to one of Jack's games on the floor where he had been playing with it a few days ago. I thought to myself that he would like that to go to Darren's house and started to gather it up. I realized the most important piece wasn't there anymore, it had either been blown somewhere across the house or already ben packed up. He loved that game and I knew as soon as I saw him he would ask me for it. My eyes started to water as I tried not to think about how unfair this was to him and his sister. I didn't even know where all the pieces to his damned game were. I went back to the movies and behind one found a bill from a local car parts company that was not there a few days ago...it must have been blown there. My vision became blurry as the tears continued to build. My brother was right above me asking me a question about something. I couldn't answer it for fear my voice would break if I opened my mouth. When he persisted I whispered for him to get Patti, unable to meet his eyes. Mike yelled into the kitchen, asking Patti to come over for a minute. She joined us in the living room, took one look at me staring straight ahead at the wall, eyes threatening to spill over at any moment and put her hand on my shoulder.
"What's up?" She asked gently.
"I think I need to go for a walk now" I tried to whisper it but it came out in a wail. The whole house full of people heard me. She helped me up and we walked out my front door and down the street, me sobbing the whole way.
We reached the Union Burger parking lot (whose sign was currently in Patti's backyard 2 blocks away) where the CHCH and Global TV trucks were parked.
It was all just too much. How do you pack up your house in a matter of hours? How do you decide what to keep and what to get rid of? How do you deal with so much loss? I hadn't seen my kids in days and they would never enter this house again. After today I would be without a home. Our vehicles were ruined. This was the first time my husband had even been around since Sunday. It was all just too much to handle.
Patti's eyes watered as she showed me a picture she had just snapped with her phone from inside my house. It was of the print I had in my kitchen stating
"A house is built with boards and beams, a home is built with love and dreams".
It didn't matter, she said. It's just a building. We were taking the memories with us. No one could take the memories, the experiences, away from us. They were always a part of us, no matter where we went.
I told her how I felt guilty because we had so much help, and so many others had no one. She shook her head emphatically, put her hands on my shoulders and looked me straight in the eyes.
"You listen to me!" She said.
"For the last 2 days, your husband has been away from you and your children. He wasn't able to stay and look after you guys, you had to look after those kids and get them safe and you did that on your own. You didn't know where he was, what he was doing, or what danger he was in. He and your brother and have been out for two days now helping this entire town, helping everyone else but their own family and putting the needs of others in this town first. They have helped and will continue to help anyone in this town who needs it. Today it is your turn. Today you and your husband get help. You and Jeff deserve all this help after everything he has done for this town, and don't you dare doubt it or forget it."
And you know what? She was right. I will never forget that conversation. She was right, and it was okay for us to accept help.
Patti and I returned to the house. Mike checked in with me, and on we went with our day. At one point our vehicle insurance agent called and advised us to have our vehicles towed to Bayfield (a neighbouring town) to be assessed, as all the Goderich lots were already full. Sitting behind his desk in a nearby city, the agent on the other end of the phone was convinced that what we were dealing with was just some body damage. Jeff tried to explain that he was certain both vehicles were write offs and the agent repiled that he found that highly unlikely. Jeff informed him that he was a licenced auto mechanic, knew what he was talking about and was not about to be screwed around. The agent advised us to have our vehicles towed and promised to be in touch. I should have known right then and there the battle we would be in over our vehicles, but wouldn't find that out for another couple of days. Being an auto mechanic, Jeff knows all of the local tow truck operators and even though he was told it would be a long wait before they could get to us, there was a tow truck at our place within an hour. He had us move our vehicles to the Union Burger parking lot. The van was wedged into the garage and it took about 8 guys to lift it up and manually back it up before it could be moved out of the driveway. Both vehicles drove right out though. I think watching his beautiful truck drive away, all bruised and battered, was one of the harder moments for Jeff this far. They would sit in that parking lot until the tow truck could come get both of them together.
I realize that I haven't yet addressed the truffles. Remember how on Sunday I had made 230 of the 450 truffles for my cousin's upcoming wedding? They were still in my freezers, which were still cold thanks to being plugged into the neighbour's generator. Mike was full of questions about what I was going to do with them and believed it necessary to taste test them throughout the day, ensuring they were still okay. I had no idea what I was going to do about them. My cousin's fiancee had been messaging me continuously offering whatever help they could. They are also the ones who bought my kids $200 worth of clothes the day before. I didn't know how to broach the subject with her yet so I avoided it.
That giant bag of flour I had bought on Sunday was still sitting on my kitchen table. What was I supposed to do with it now? Sheila had "disposed of" the steaks that had been thawing on the counter when the tornado hit Sunday afternoon and were still sitting on the counter 2 days later.
People were constantly dropping by throughout the day, offering what they could, saying what they could to try to help. My friend Jen came by with food and Patti and Sheila gave her a box of Jeff's workclothes to wash. One of the many "executive decisions" they made throughout the day. I ended up giving her the flour too, because if anyone could make use of it, she could. We had so much food dropped off to us, we started offering it others. On all of the heavily affected streets people who wanted to help but didn't know what to do walked around offering sandwiches, cold drinks and desserts to those working on their homes. Patti's daughter handed out popsicles to anyone that would take them.
At one point during the day, everything was going along pretty smoothly. We had 2 Goderich firemen and 4 Brussels firemen helping pack and load the storage trailer when, surprise surprise, the pagers went off. 6 of my male helpers took off running to their vehicles as I threw my hands up in frustration.
Would those pagers ever quit??? Was I going to have to deal with the structural engineer on my own?
They returned a short while later and Jeff told me that he had told the department he would not be responding for the rest of the day.
Finally. Hell of a plan.
The day went on with between 20-30 people packing up and moving everything from our home into the storage trailer, Jodi's van and Sheila's husband's truck.
I will be honest and say that I really did nothing. I wandered around and answered people's questions, directed them as to what went where, and talked to people dropping by. Looking back, I realize my head simply wasn't there. I could not wrap my head around what was going on. I kept looking at the other houses on our street, at the church, at the bank. I updated people through texts, BBMs and facebook and was always nearby...but not really there. I sat on the swings in my backyard. The swings were there, but the slide had disappeared. I had planned on making salsa and pasta sauce that coming weekend. There were about 10 cucumbers in my garden ready to be pickled. Now I couldn't even see them. The hammock swing from our front porch, which Makenn and I loved to sit and read in, both together and alone, was stuck high up in a tree in my neighbour's backyard. The wooden glider seat that Jeff's dad had built us a few years ago that was also on our front porch, was completely gone. We hadn't seen even a sliver of it. The tornado picked up the whole thing and threw it somewhere else...for all I knew it was in the house 2 doors down now. When Makenna was a year old my brother bought her a Sesame Street glider swing that sat on the other side of our front porch. She and Jack still used it all the time, as did little friends who visited our home. That swing had flew into our garage and was buried under other things now, mangled and ruined. And yet, the big bag of clothes for my friend's son that Jeff had put on the porch Sunday afternoon, that was supposed to be in my van, sat on my front porch, untouched.
How was all of this even possible? How was this my life now?
The moment of the structural engineer's arrival is a blog post in and of itself. We had recieved a call about 5 minutes earlier informing us she would be there momentarily. The house was empty, the trailer full. After going back in a few times to double and triple check, we were confident we had removed everything we wanted. We had left some stuff, but were okay with that.
This woman gets out of her SUV and you could hear a collective jaw drop from all the males on my property.
Size 6, tall, long dark hair, sunglasses, model material. Gorgeous. This was our engineer? Immediately my brother was skeptical. She introduced herself to us and Jeff, Mike and I led her to the backyard, the eyes of every man nearby following her every move.
Right away she said to Jeff "Well it looks like you'll be getting a new garage!"
All I wanted her to say was that I would be getting a new kitchen.
After touring the basement and main floor we went upstairs. She wouldn't even enter Makenna's or my bedroom, and admonished us for being in there at all. She started to share her plan for "repairing this wall, and that wall, and part of the roof". I looked at Mike, panic in my eyes. I did NOT want to fix this house. I wanted it rebuilt. I would never trust a repair on this house and 2 men who built houses for a living had already been though and told us they would never agree to repair it. Mike and Jeff talked to her a bit more and pointed out a few more things. After awhile she took a few more measurements and determined that not only had the East wall moved, so had the West wall. Both walls had moved at least 3 inches outward. The walls had pulled away from the second floor joists, causing the floor to sag. She also wanted the tarps removed from the roof so she could see the actual damage. All that time Sheila and Jodi's husbands had spent tarping it, and now she wanted it all pulled back. Sheila's husband and my brother worked to remove the tarps and she went up the ladder to have a closer look. again, plenty of male eyes on her as she climbed that ladder. Not completely satisfied, this woman went back into our house and crawled around in our attic. She saw that there was plenty of damage to the rafters. Finally she told us she was going to strongly recommend to the insurance company that the house come down. A short while later 2 of her colleagues met her at our property and walked through the house with her. They agreed and, as expected, told us we were no longer permitted to be in the house - that the next people in should be operating hi hoes.
You would think this would be a sad moment, but really, its what we were hoping for. As I mentioned, the last thing we wanted was to try to repair that house. A rebuild is the only option I felt safe with. We had 2 children that had just survived a tornado in that house and witnessed the after effects. I did not want to bring them back in. Now we would just have to wait for the insurance company to agree.
As our house that was packed into that 48 foot trailer pulled away, we saw that at the same moment our vehicles were being towed out of the Union Burger Parking Lot. Everything we owned, gone just like that. Our Deputy Fire Chief's wife had been helping us throughout the day and when she came across our cat, she volunteered to take him home with her until we were settled. He is a himalayan cat with long white hair. The poor thing had insulation, bits of fibreglass and dirt matted throughout his fur and was just a mess. She scooped him up and took him home, another load off our mind.
Our friend Jen had invited us all over for dinner that night and so we prepared to head over there. The only one left by that point was Mike. He happily accepted the truffles to take home to his freezer. He reached for his car keys but couldn't find them anywhere. Turned out they were attached to his friend's toolbelt. That friend was already at home, an hour away. 2 of the other firemen who came with Mike to help us that day had stayed for awhile to help cut down trees for the people behind us. They had made it as far as Benmiller on their way home and had to turn around to come back and pick up Mike. His buddy who had his keys met him on the road somewhere between his house and mine. Once he had them back, Mike came all the way back to Goderich with the 2 other Brussles firemen to get his car and was finally on his way home to Brussels, truffles and all.
We had a great dinner and visit with our friends at Jen's place that evening. We shared a lot of stories, and even a lot of laughs. Jeff shared stories and experiences he had had with the fire department over the last couple days, and checked out the showering facilities at Jen's place too. One of our friends showed up with The Goderich Signal Star, our community newspaper, and we saw that there was already coverage of the tornado in it. Another friend and I walked to the local store to get some copies of it. She and I each wanted 5 copies to give out to family and friends and, the storeowner gave us a hard time.
"I only have 30 papers, why do you need so many?"
I sighed and looked at her. Was I really going to have to play the "Tornado went through my house" card?.
"I lost my house, she has a tree through her roof, I have money for 5 papers and want 5 papers."
She handed me the newspapers as my friend stifled a laugh.
"You're getting used to saying that aren't you?" My friend said as we walked back.
I just laughed. What else could you do.
We left Jen's house, exhausted. Jeff was due back at the firehall in the morning to be fitted for special masks. Asbestos was suspected to have been disturbed in our downstown business core when the many buildings there were damaged. The fire dept was going to be playing a role in assisting families as they re entered their apartments above the stores to retrieve some belongings, and also with clearing out some of the businesses and so were now required to wear masks specifically protecting them from asbestos.
As we fell asleep at Darren's Tuesday night, still without hydro, I made a plan to go to the Knights of Columbus hall the next morning. Now that there was nothing left to do with the house, I had to figure out what we were supposed to do in order carry on with our lives.
I needed help.
The next blog in this series, detailing Wednesday, August 24th, will be a difficult one to write. Bear with me.
- I grew up in a village of 500 people and now live in a beach town of 10 000. Wife to Jeff, Mama to Makenna and Jack. This is my place to share what's up with us, and the place where I sometimes need to pour my heart out about the not so sunshiney moments. This is my happy place. Thanks for stopping by :) Copyright 2012 by Melissa Wormington, that no part of this blog may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, without permission from the publisher.