May 15, 2017
At 4:45 on April 21st, it abruptly started to hail at my house in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Little chunks of ice, the size of a quarter or even larger. And then, according to my husband, the hail suddenly started shooting sideways, as though there were a hail cannon aimed at our home. The noise was ferocious, and some antediluvian hunch drove my husband and youngest son rushing into an interior stairwell.
When the racket died down just a few minutes -- minutes -- later, eight trees had fallen in our yard and in our neighbors’ yards, three of the trees around 100 feet tall. Two utility poles were sheared off at the base, our yard a tangle of live wires. A subcontractor for PEPCO, our local electric utility, cut down a ninth tree two days later, as the wind had ripped the entire canopy off, leaving an unstable 70-foot tall remnant.
Our neighbors and we were incredibly, improbably lucky. The trunks, some as thick as five feet in diameter, fell between the close-clustered houses, and while we all suffered some damage, it was largely superficial. No one was seriously hurt. One of the trees did come down right onto a car driving past, crushing the front passenger side of the cabin. Fortunately, no one was riding in that seat and the driver and his baby in the back seat survived with minor injuries, a near miss of seconds and inches.
We were also lucky that whatever wind phenomenon hit our nook of the neighborhood, it did not directly tap our homes. My friend, Mike Schichtel, who was working as the lead forecaster for the National Weather Service that day in the College Park office, later told us that the sudden storm “may have had a small hook echo briefly that can be associated with potential tornadic development,” but can’t confirm anything beyond strong winds. The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center has reports of the damage at this site.
This amazing piece in the Washington Post explains really well what happened. The Capital Weather Gang, when they wrote this, did not know about the scale of damage to our half-block area, so they offer no insights as to what might have actually happened. Was this a microburst? Wind shear? The briefest kiss of a funnel? We’ll never know, I guess.
I found it all ironic, given that we’re in the midst of our “Weather Eye” project at New America, and I wasn't expecting such an intimate lesson in severe weather. For the project, we’ve been using NOAA and FEMA data as a guide to hard-hit parts of the country, but our plan is to go beyond the data to talk to people about the weather they live with. My own experience validates this approach: the data on the Storm Prediction Center site is mildly misleading, in that our neighborhood is described twice using two different street names and two different damage assessments. Also, saying half a dozen trees and wires are down doesn’t really communicate the scale of the damage, which probably would have been more clearly communicated if any of those monster trees had actually landed directly on a house or caused a fatality. In other words, only the humans present could have communicated how bad this event really was.
Finally, it’s been an interesting experience in resilience. PEPCO was on the scene the same night of the incident with a subcontractor, cutting up trees throughout the night to clear the two blocked streets. This was annoying at the time (not much sleep going on with a small army of guys with chainsaws and little handheld flashlights 30 feet from the bedroom window), but gratifying the next day. It turns out only an electrician you hire can actually re-attach electricity to your home, but PEPCO reinstalled utility poles and had power flowing to us via a temporary workaround within a day. Verizon came the day after PEPCO was finished to restore phone cables, and Comcast the day after that to restore Internet and television, though that still doesn’t seem fully functional weeks later. There was debris down in streets and sidewalks under the jurisdiction of both our city and the regional park and planning commission, and both cleared tree trunks and other hazards away within a few days. Bent guardrails and other structural damage on public property are not yet repaired – and perhaps may never be. We’ll see.
As for our own yard, we had four very large trees down, and two other trees from our neighbor’s yard down in parts of our yard. Our insurance company was at our house the very next business day, and a tree removal service came the day after that. They left us some wood for our own use, but chipped the rest up to fill up the massive holes left by the tree roots. We still have repairs to make – flattened fences and torn concrete – but nothing that affects our day-to-day wellbeing.
Human resilience is another matter. One neighbor is still waiting for the insurance company to make an assessment and authorize work. They have a massive tree inches from the house, their deck crushed underneath – you can see a child’s red plastic deck chair peeking out of the wreckage. They have no choice but to look at the tree, snaking through their yard like some giant sea serpent, every day. I think the lingering physical evidence has made it hard for some of us not to dwell on the terrible things that almost happened.
It’s also hard not to feel some larger sadness about the loss of so many trees. That may seem goofy, given that we could have lost human lives, but these trees were White Oak, Red Oak, and several other long-lived species, already more than 100 years old. They sprouted on this spot before my father, who passed away more than a decade ago, was born, and even before my grandparents at the turn of the last century. And they should have still been here after I die someday.
Instead, there’s just a blank spot on my lawn. And I don’t even know why.