News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

June 5, 2011

STEPHANIE SALTER: On the other hand … we’ll have a lot fewer leaves to rake

Editor’s Note: Former Tribune-Star Assistant Editor Stephanie Salter’s column resumes today in freelance form and will appear on this page every other Sunday.

TERRE HAUTE — My neighbor, Andy, had just lowered the bamboo blinds on his front porch when we heard a mournful sound.

“What is that?” his wife, Anna Lee, asked. “I’ve never heard that bird before.”

The cry was sweet, pure and distressed, a little like a young gull, but not quite so piercing. Besides, the nearest ocean is about 800 miles away.

“I’ve never heard a kestrel,” I said, “but don’t they cry like that?”

Anna Lee took a sip of her wine and said, “Whatever it is, his home has been transformed, too.”

Anna Lee had asked Andy to lower the blinds to put a little barrier between us and the slow, steady stream of cars that had been moving down our dead-end street all day. Like most of the people on our block, she’d had enough of strangers staring at our homes, our yards and our dog-tired selves as if we were a zoo exhibit.

Not that we could blame the gawkers. News gets out that a city neighborhood has been clobbered by super-powerful winds, and lots of people want to see the destruction for themselves. Maybe it makes them feel better about not getting clobbered. Maybe they are simply drawn to the awesome evidence of nature unleashed. I’d like to think that if anyone had gotten killed, the sightseers would have stayed away.

Mercifully, I’ll never know. Despite winds that took out at least a dozen big, mature trees on my property, alone — ferocious straight winds that sheared off, splintered and uprooted hundreds of others trees throughout neighborhoods on the northwest side of Terre Haute and Marian Heights — no one in the storm’s path was injured, let alone killed. Trees fell on houses and cars, smashed through windows and fences and power poles. But not one fell on a person.

How is that possible? In a U.S. spring filled with an extraordinary amount of death and injury from vicious winds all over the South, the Midwest and even in the northeast, how could such damage be done to so many objects and not one person?The what-if stories have abounded since the night of the sudden, roaring winds. If so-and-so’s oak had fallen only a foot to the left or right, she or her husband would have been under it. If such-and-such hadn’t just left his bedroom to go to the kitchen, he’d be smashed like the roof that now lies on top of his bed. If Anna Lee, Andy, Bill and I had stayed just a few more minutes at the restaurant in which we all had dinner, we could have been knocked to the ground by the quarter of an oak tree that crashed down on Bill’s unoccupied car.

What didn’t happen. It’s a phrase that’s come back to me time and again, acting as a potent antidote to the proof of what DID happen. That proof was partly stacked but mostly thrown for days in my front yard, which looked like the scene of a multiple logging truck accident. It was almost impossible to tell whose trees were whose. My next-door neighbors’? The folks’ across the street? Mine?

They all fell in a matter of seconds and instantly co-mingled their massive bodies across our yards and street. When city workers went at the tangle with chain saws and forklifts in the middle of that first rainy night — a gas main had broken, Vectren needed to get it capped — they had no time for tidiness. That they managed to clear a vehicle path through the street by the next morning was the first of many Herculean feats I witnessed.

In fact, you will get no complaints from me about any of the responders to our great neighborhood mess. Not about the private tree companies that came to help one family and stayed for days to serve dozens of residents who’d wave them down and ask to be put on their to-do list. Not about Terre Haute Street Department employees, Vectren and Duke crews, Time Warner Cable, Frontier Communications or Allstate insurance representatives.

Sure, sure, we pay for such services, but they usually involve faceless connections that we take for granted and notice only when the monthly price goes up — or a burst of weather knocks them out and us back to more primitive conditions. The presence and phone calls of all these men and women provided a steady drumbeat of comfort in the chaos.

I’ve taken comfort, too, from the people of my neighborhood, the ones I know and those I don’t, but with whom I identify. Most of us lost magnificent trees that had stood decades before we were born. Tall and beautiful old friends, our trees provided shade in the summer, stark black sculpture in the winter and sound stages for birdsong and squirrel chatter all year ’round.

“I’m sure sorry my oak took out your pine trees,” said my neighbor, Larry, a couple of days after the storm. “I loved looking out of my second-story window at those pines.”

I loved looking at them, too. I lost five pines to the wind and had to have another cut down because it was blown over several degrees toward the street. I lost two huge ash trees, as well, and two pin oaks that were close to 70 years old. Their older sibling, right in the middle of my front yard, also must be cut down: Thanks to the rampaging winds, it became a dangerous “leaner” overnight. A giant hackberry bush tree that moved enough to shove over part of a 6-foot concrete wall near my patio also had to come down.

My husband, Bill, was exhausted the night of the big winds, but I couldn’t sleep, what with the smell of natural gas, the jackhammering street crews and the new Alamogordo-ish landscape that was revealed with each flash of lightning. For a good hour or so after the winds blew through, even the bull frogs were stone quiet. Then, slowly, they started their bass chorus. I imagined them doing what scores of us throughout my neighborhood were doing with our flashlights and careful treks across debris-laden yards.

“Everybody OK in your place?”

“Yup. OK here. Yours?”

“Yep, we’re good. Isn’t it a miracle?”

Stephanie Salter may be e-mailed at SalterOpinion@gmail.com.

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