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Blown away

SoVaNow.com / October 01, 2009
My wife and I were talking with our son’s English teacher at the middle school open house Monday when the rain started to fall, crashing to the ground at angles you might imagine a downed aircraft taking. As the storm raged and heaved, spitting out wind and hail, it struck me how protected we were inside the building. Say what you will about HCMS, but it’s a sturdy place; I tried to recall from my time there as a high school student if the building had doubled as a fall-out shelter. Our eight-year-old daughter, who had tagged along for the visit, sat placidly at one of the big kids’ desks reading a book. Aside from the storm outside, there was only one oddity: a whooshing sound emanating from the ventilation shaft over our heads. Otherwise we could have been inside an impenetrable bunker.

After the open house ended — and long after the storm played itself out — my wife and I split up; she had errands to run, and so I loaded my daughter into my car and drove off to the soccer field in Halifax for weekly practice. I didn’t think anyone else would show up (as the team’s coach, I felt obligated) and when we arrived there was only one other vehicle sitting in the parking lot. This one hardy soccer parent and I chatted for a bit amid the sogginess and agreed that no one else was going to show up, so time to go home.

On the way back to South Boston the scene grew more chaotic. Halifax was a bit of a mess, but South Boston was a different matter altogether. Driving past downed branches and limbs on both sides of North Main, we reached the Hamilton Boulevard intersection. The stoplight was out. An officer was shunting traffic to the right and left, but not forward. A power line appeared to be downed up the street. I turned left headed towards Route 360 but then took a right onto College Street in order to double back to North Main. Curiosity carried the day.

Back on North Main, I began to realize this was more than a run-of-the-mill thunderstorm. All through the neighborhood there were huge limbs ripped off the trunks of tall hardwoods, and where there were no twisted and uprooted trees the ground was covered by less imposing debris. One yard on North Main seems to dump branches after every run-of-the-mill storm, but this time the ground was covered in sticks and limbs reaching head-high. In several places trees were leaning down upon suddenly-taut utility wires. We turned down Irish Street, and I wondered if things were as bad there.

Not at all. Irish belonged in the realm of the ordinary, as opposed to not-quite-sure-what-to-make-of-it scene along North Main. Another turn and we were home. Oops. I forgot I needed to run to the office to pick up some stuff. Wouldn’t be able to use my computer, I rightly figured, since there hadn’t been a functioning stoplight in town ever since Centerville. I got there and yep, no power. While my daughter and I were running around town I figured we might as well hit the grocery store. Off to Riverdale.

Well, now: there the lights were burning bright, and there was no need for motorists to guess who’s turn it was to drive first through the intersection. I’m not usually all that happy to encounter stoplights, but there you go. Besides realizing Riverdale had power, the othet thing that stood out was how busy the restaurants all were. On a Monday night? Only later did it occur to me that there wouldn’t be much cooking in town this evening.

We ducked into Food Lion and grabbed some spaghetti and broccoli for dinner, then headed home. My daughter kept saying it was the worst storm she’d ever seen, but being only 8 years old that didn’t count for much. My thoughts turned to the remnants of a hurricane whose name I long ago forgot, and how it swept through down our street a few years back and knocked a pine into a nice and very large house. So I wasn’t ready to concede the point just yet.

We returned home. Dummy, I thought to myself; how are you going to cook a spaghetti dinner when the power is out? Luckily our camp stove burns gasoline, and the tank was almost full. I went around back to pull it out of the shed. I had intended to get started on dinner right then and there, because I knew it would take a while to bring the water to a boil, but my wife, who had beaten us home, wanted to tour the neighborhood before dinner.

Walking in the direction of C.H. Friend was out of the question; the lower end of Marshall Avenue was cut off by another utility line brought down by the storm. We wouldn’t have gotten far anyway; there were too many people to chat with first. The excitement of the storm had drawn folks out onto the sidewalk, or maybe it was simply a matter of no TV, no Internet, and no power to keep them indoors. I must admit: it was a fun gathering. On our street — all over our end of town — one could be forgiven for believing a block party had broken out. Was it a tornado? the neighbors wondered. Some insisted it was. Word spread that we wouldn’t have power back for at least a day, maybe longer. Another neighbor said he heard the storm had touched off a fire at an electrical substation in town. There are substations in South Boston? One thing we all knew for sure: power lines were down all over the place. As we gathered with the neighbors in the street to mull the future of local civilization, sirens blared and an occasional squad car or rescue vehicle cruised by. Shushing the kids inside the house, Eva and I tore away from the gaggle and walked in the direction of nearby Jeffress Street, curious what surprises awaited there.

Reaching the top of the hill, we took in what surely will rank as the indelible scene of the Storm of 2009: the massive oak that toppled across the street and onto Frog Haven Apartments, knocking out the front porch and overhang and punching holes as big as beachballs into the roof. Wow. Now this was a mess. Running into friends milling around outside their home, we got the update: there had been some folks sitting on the porch of the apartment building just as the tree fell, although no one had been hurt. A rescue vehicle arrived to take a woman away, but whatever was wrong with her, it didn’t seem to be a serious injury. We continued up the street, which was buzzing more than our own. It’s always nice to see the neighbors out and about.

At the apartment building, folks had surrounded the felled timber like so many Lilliputs attending to an oaky Gulliver. After snapping a few pictures with my wife’s camera I waded into a small gathering of two women and a handful of younger people. The eldest member of the party, Affal Crenshaw, recounted what had happened: she and her husband were sitting on the porch when the storm kicked up. In a few short moments, she said, the wind grew in intensity and took down the big tree across the street; had her grandson not reached the porch in time to drag the couple indoors, well, who knows what would have happened.

I listened to Mrs. Crenshaw’s story more than an hour after the near-disaster occurred, and by this time everyone appeared to have calmed down, aided no doubt by the comfort of repeating the same all’s well-that-ends-well narrative. It probably would be more accurate to say Mrs. Crenshaw and her family were more overcome emotionally than shaken up physically by events. As it happened, the woman who was taken away by the rescue squad was the mother of Mrs. Crenshaw’s grandson, Darrin Satterfield, who had pulled his grandparents out of harm’s way. The treated woman, Tammie Barksdale, would be fine, various people in the crowd attested, but with the excitement of the storm it wouldn’t hurt for her to receive some medical attention for a spell. Young Mr. Satterfield, the hero of the hour, listened quietly as his grandmother held court in the middle of the street, occasionally interjecting a passed-over detail as I scribbled notes. It turns out the family is fond of sitting on the porch together; and I remembered that before the onrush of wind, rain and hail, the skies that afternoon had been rather striking. Hopefully Mrs. Crenshaw and her family will be able to return to their porch soon.

Eva and I finally got back home, and I fired up the Coleman; an hour later the pot was boiling and a dinner of alfredo was finally in the making. I skipped on the broccoli, not wanting to push our gear too hard, and made a salad instead. Eva broke out the candles and we enjoyed a perfectly lovely dinner together, talking with the kids about all the storms we had experienced in our lifetimes and how maybe our daughter might enjoy a new addition to one of her favorite book series; the title could be “Little Town on the Prairie.” Then it was off to bed: no computer, no TV, although the kids could have a flashlight to read by if they pleased.

There are worse things in life than to be deprived of modern conveniences such as power, especially for such a short time when all else is safe and sound in the night. And what of the morning? Hopefully service would be restored by then. And you know what? Happily it was.

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