Weather Updates

Tornado clean-up plan overwhelming, but simple — just do it: Brown

Debris litters arewhere Mindy Taylor's bedroom stood before tornado Sunday. | Mark Brown~Sun-Times

Debris litters the area where Mindy Taylor's bedroom stood before the tornado Sunday. | Mark Brown~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 21, 2013 6:41AM

WASHINGTON — We reconnoitered at what was left of my sister’s house Tuesday morning and tried to figure out what to do when a tornado has rearranged not just your furniture but your life.

“Where do we start?” I asked, and nobody was quite sure of the answer at first, until fairly quickly it became obvious: Just do it.

Salvage what you can. Box it. Pack it. Load it on whatever you have available. Haul it to a safe place. Repeat. Leave the rest and make peace with the loss.

At one point, my brother Mitch and I both were looking for a garbage can to throw some trash when we realized our folly.

The entire house had become a trash pile. An entire neighborhood had become a landfill. Garbage cans were superfluous.

This was my first look at my sister Mindy’s house since the tornado, having been blocked Monday from reaching it, and the pictures I had previously seen and shared with you did not do justice to the destruction.

Her house will need to be bulldozed. But even at that, it’s as she kept saying over and over through tears to all her friends who came to help: “We’re the lucky ones.”

Not only lucky to have come through the tornado with their health intact, but lucky to be able to save most of their possessions — as opposed to the families all around them left with nothing after their homes were leveled to the foundations.

I didn’t really play reporter Tuesday, but after eight hours of cleanup work amid the roar of chain saws and the kindness of strangers, I figured I’d absorbed enough to write a column.

Still, I checked in first with my old friend Mark Hodges at Kimpling’s Ace Hardware, which was about 200 yards outside the path of the storm. The store is still without electric power, but like everybody in Washington, he and his wife Nancy were trying to take care of the needs of storm victims.

I asked if he’d heard any good tornado stories from his customers, and he told me about a guy who said he opened his door to let his two dogs outside Sunday morning. One dog bounded outside, the other cowered in the doorway, then went back inside. It was only then he looked up and saw the tornado.

“There’s too many stories,” Hodges said.

That’s absolutely true. At least, there’s too many to tell.

Think about it. If you’re in a tornado, you have a story worth sharing. Even if the tornado just missed you, you have a story. And everybody’s story is a little different.

I still haven’t had a chance to hear my sister’s story from her perspective. But according to her husband Jeff and son Ben, it went something like this.

There had been a storm siren earlier, but the siren had stopped. Jeff and Ben were out front searching the skies, as were many of their neighbors, more curious than scared.

They weren’t sure what a funnel cloud looked like. Then Jeff stepped off the front porch and out from behind the tree that had blocked his view and saw a sight to the southwest that left no doubt.

“Warn your mother!” Jeff told Ben, who immediately did so.

While Mindy and Ben ran to the basement, however, Jeff stayed outside to take some pictures. A lot of people did that. I’m not sure any of them would recommend that as a course of action the next time. I sure wouldn’t.

If you want to see what it was like at my sister’s house, look online for the video by Kris Lancaster, who lives just across the street. You may have already seen it. Lancaster told me he’s been on CNN, Inside Edition and Good Morning America.

Lancaster said they call him “Squid,” and I’m not entirely clear whether that was his nickname before or since acquiring the eye patch he’s been forced to wear after suffering three lacerations to his eyeball during the storm.

Lancaster was injured while making a video of the tornado as it not only bore down on his house but kept it up until it was literally exploding right on top of him.

I asked him why he did that, and I believe he could tell from my tone of voice that I thought he was crazy.

“I got mesmerized. That’s all I can say,” Lancaster said.

Even two days later, the tornado can be mesmerizing. I see aluminum gutters wrapped around treetops like ribbons, and I stare and ponder the amazing power that put it there.

And then it’s time to get back to work.

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